Harry deLeyer, a horse trainer and rider who, in what can only be described as a nags-to-riches story, turned an aged, abandoned gelding named Snowman into one of the most acclaimed show horses of all time, died on June 25 in Stanardsville, Virginia. He was 93.
His daughter Harriet confirmed his death, at an assisted living facility.
DeLeyer 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 soon took a job as the riding instructor at a girls school on Long Island.
In 1956 he traveled to a horse auction in Pennsylvania to see if he could pick up a few animals for his beginner students. But he had to stop for a flat tire, and by the time he arrived for the auction, it was over. The horses that hadn’t been sold were being loaded onto a truck, bound for the slaughterhouse.
DeLeyer peered inside, and a grayish-white horse caught his eye. The others were visibly frightened; this one was calm. Most had obvious injuries; this one, aside from a few superficial scars, was healthy and well-built. He had been a plow horse and, at about eight years old, was starting to wear out.
DeLeyer, who grew up around work horses, saw something the other buyers hadn’t. He bought the horse for $80 (about $750 in today’s money), at a time when prize horses might have fetched over $40,000 (or about $375,000 today). When he arrived home with the horse, his four-year-old daughter, Harriet, named it Snowman.
Snowman was supposed to be a lesson horse for new riders. But as he gained strength, he showed promise as a jumper, and deLeyer was always on the lookout for new show horses. He and Snowman began to train.
“I think that horse knew my father had given him a second chance,” Harriet deLeyer said in a phone interview. “My father asked him to do some crazy things, and he would do it.”
Two years later, deLeyer rode Snowman in his first competition, a local show, where they easily took the blue ribbon in the jumper class. Another, bigger show followed, where they knocked off the two-time defending champion. More victories followed.
“There seems to be no end to Snowman’s winning titles at the nation’s biggest shows,” journalist Marie Lafrenz wrote in The New York Herald Tribune.
Horse shows were widely popular in the 1950s, especially around New York City, where the well-to-do both participated and observed — the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden kicked off the Manhattan social season.
The press fawned over Snowman and deLeyer, as did the fans, who loved their scrappy approach to an otherwise elite endeavor. Where many teams arrived with fancy equipment and large entourages, deLeyer showed up with Johanna, their eight children and his occasional student, all of whom pitched in. A few of them hand-painted the sign outside their temporary stable during their first appearance at Madison Square Garden, in 1958.
Snowman took the blue ribbon that year, was named horse of the year by the American Horse Shows Association (today the US Equestrian Federation) and won the Professional Horsemen’s Association championship, making him one of the few horses to win what was then considered the sport’s triple crown.