Harry deLeyer, 93, dies; He saved a horse and made it a legend
Harry deLeyer, a horse trainer and rider who, in what can only be described as an executioner story, turned an aged and abandoned gelding named Snowman into one of the most acclaimed show horses of all time, died June 25 in Stanardsville, Virginia. He was 93 years old.
Her daughter Harriet has confirmed her death in an assisted living facility.
Mr. deLeyer (pronounced deh-LAY-er) was a Dutch immigrant who had worked with the anti-German resistance during World War II and arrived in the United States in 1950 with his wife, Johanna, his work experience largely confined to his family farm in the Netherlands. He quickly accepted a position as a riding instructor at a girls’ school on Long Island.
In 1956, he went to a horse auction in Pennsylvania to see if he could collect some animals for his beginning students. But he had to stop for a flat tire, and by the time he got to the auction it was over. Horses that had not been sold were loaded into a truck for the slaughterhouse.
Mr. deLeyer glanced inside and a greyish white horse caught his eye. The others were visibly frightened; this one was calm. Most had obvious injuries; this one, apart from a few superficial scars, was healthy and well built. He had been a workhorse and, around the age of 8, was starting to wear out.
Mr. deLeyer, who grew up around draft horses, saw something that other buyers hadn’t seen. He bought the horse for $ 80 (about $ 750 in today’s cash), at a time when prize horses could have fetched over $ 40,000 (or around $ 375,000 today). When he arrived home with the horse, his 4 year old daughter Harriet named him Snowman.
The snowman was meant to be a course horse for new riders. But as he gained strength he showed promise as a jumper, and Mr. deLeyer was always on the lookout for new show horses. He and Snowman started training.
“I think this horse knew my dad gave him a second chance,” Harriet deLeyer said in a phone interview. “My dad asked him to do crazy things, and he would.”
Two years later, Mr deLeyer rode Snowman in their first competition, a local show, where they easily won the blue ribbon in the show jumping class. Another bigger show followed, where they knocked out the two-time defending champion. Other victories followed.
“There seems to be no end to the titles Snowman has won in the nation’s biggest shows,” journalist Marie Lafrenz wrote in the New York Herald Tribune.
Horse shows were very popular in the 1950s, especially around New York City, where the better-off participated and watched – the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden kicked off Manhattan’s social season.
The press loved Snowman and Mr. deLeyer, as did the fans, who loved their rambling approach to an otherwise elitist company. Where many teams arrived with sophisticated equipment and a large entourage, Mr deLeyer showed up with Johanna, their eight children and his occasional pupil, all of whom participated. A few hand painted the sign outside their temporary stable when they first appeared. at Madison Square Garden, in 1958.
Snowman won the Blue Ribbon that year, was named Horse of the Year by the American Horse Shows Association (now the Equestrian Federation of the United States), and won the Professional Horsemen’s Association Championship, making from him one of the few horses to win what was then considered the triple sporting crown.
Mr deLeyer and Snowman narrowly failed to repeat their feat the following year, winning again at Madison Square Garden and taking home the title of Horse of the Year.
The unlikely story of Harry deLeyer and his “Cinderella Horse” made them famous. They appeared on The Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson took a ride in the saddle. They traveled to Europe. Fans came from all over the world to visit their Long Island paddock.
Appearing on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’, Mr deLeyer said, “Snowman and I both came from nothing. But together we have reached the top of the world.
Snowman continued to compete, but less often, and won fewer titles as he faced increasingly younger horses. He and Mr deLeyer appeared at shows more often – despite his age, he could easily overcome obstacles seven feet high and took to jumping over other horses as part of his show.
Mr deLeyer was always amazed at Snowman’s strength – “a freak of nature,” he once called him – but he insisted that the key to the horse’s success was his demeanor: calm, friendly, willing. Out of the ring, Snowman became part of the DeLeyer family, swimming in the lake with the children in the summer and pulling them on skis in the winter.
Snowman officially retired in 1969 at Madison Square Garden, where the crowd stood to applaud and sing “Auld Lang Syne”.
In 1974, Snowman began to suffer from kidney failure and the DeLeyers decided to euthanize him. Despite all his stubborn farm boy demeanor, Mr deLeyer couldn’t bring himself to be there at first when the vet pulled Snowman out of his stable. But the horse refused to leave until Mr deLeyer arrived with tears in his eyes to take him for a ride.
Henricus deLeyer was born on September 21, 1927 in Sint-Oedenrode, a Dutch town near the Belgian border. Her father, Josephus, ran the family farm and brewery, while her mother, Wilhelmina, raised their 12 children.
Mr. deLeyer, who adopted the first name Harry when he came to the United States, learned to ride almost as early as he learned to walk, and at age 7 he was competing to finally join the junior national team of the Netherlands.
His fledgling equestrian career was disrupted when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. His father turned their farm into a staging post for resistance, hiding Jews and slaughtering Allied pilots in a secret cellar he dug next to a barn and disguised under a pile of manure. At night Harry would set off on horseback in search of injured pilots.
One of these pilots, an American, died shortly after Harry brought him back to the farm. The family buried him and returned his identity tags to his parents in North Carolina, who matched Mr deLeyer and Johanna. In 1950, they sponsored the couple’s arrival in the United States.
The deLeyers separated in the 1970s and Mr. deLeyer remarried later. His second wife, Joan, died in 2013. Three of his children, Joseph, William and Harry Jr., also died.
Besides his daughter Harriet, he is survived by his children Martin, Andre, John and AnnaMarie; 14 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Information on his siblings in the Netherlands was not immediately available.
Mr deLeyer spent four years running a tobacco farm in North Carolina, showing horses on weekends. He and his family moved to Long Island in 1954 when he became a riding instructor at the Knox School for Girls in St. James, NY.
Snowman was not his only horse and Mr. deLeyer continued to compete even after Snowman died. Fans called Mr. deLeyer “the galloping grandfather,” and while he didn’t always win – although he often did – he was appreciated as a fierce competitor and avid showman.
In 1979 he returned to the National Horse Show and again won the Blue Ribbon in his class, two decades after his first triumph.
He continued to teach horseback riding and train horses, before moving to rural central Virginia, where he owned a breeding farm. His family followed his example: six of his eight children also became riders and trainers.
Snowman and Mr. deLeyer have been the subject of several books, including “The 80 Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse Who Inspired a Nation” (2011) by Elizabeth Letts, a New York Times bestseller.
They were also featured in a 2016 documentary, “Harry and Snowman,” which includes in-depth interviews with Mr deLeyer.
“I have had so many wonderful horses in my life, but Snowman was the most special to me,” he said in the movie. “Snowman was more than a horse to me. He was my friend. “