Horses are 86-year-old Harry deLeyer’s life. He knows every rider and horse is different and, like fitting a key to a lock, finding the right combination is essential. When a big grey with intelligent eyes caught deLeyer’s attention at Pennsylvania’s New Holland auction in 1956, it would prove to be a magic match. The former plough horse, rescued from the slaughterhouse and bought for just $80, was destined for work at the Knox School where his new owner was employed as a riding instructor. Snowman, as the horse was named, had other ideas. In deLeyer’s words, they both came from nothing, but together they made it to the top of the world.
Harry & Snowman tells the true and remarkable tale of an unlikely partnership between one man and his horse. It’s a beautifully crafted story, piecing together archival footage and photographs, along with recent interviews with deLeyer, his family, and riding contemporaries, to bring to life the legendary horseman’s achievements in his adopted homeland.
Harry deLeyer was born in Holland and grew up surrounded by horses. He taught himself to ride and, by the age of 7, was confident over jumps. After marriage to childhood sweetheart Johanna, deLeyer’s life was changed by a wartime act of kindness – when World War II ended the couple migrated to the United States of America at the invitation of the family of a soldier they’d never met. New life in the States came with a job on a tobacco farm but Harry’s dream was to become a professional horseman, so he saved his money and after a few years moved to Long Island to take up a position teaching daughters of the rich and famous how to ride. He signed up for one year, but stayed for 22.
For Harry, the horses always came first. They supported the family and for this reason they took top priority. Developing his business meant building a reputation as a top-notch rider and instructor, so Harry, his wife, and all of the deLeyer children travelled each Sunday to whichever town had a horse show. First they went to church, then they competed. His children’s successes acted as advertising – proof of the quality of his teaching. Such dedication to his passion came at a cost. It wasn’t an easy life for the deLeyers and the family sometimes struggled with the level of commitment expected of them.
Snowman repaid his saviour by being the perfect riding school mount for several years until he was sold and moved to a property six miles down the road. The pair weren’t parted for long. They’d formed a bond that could not be broken. The horse made his way back to his beloved owner and in the process revealed a hidden talent. He loved to jump.
Harry decided to test his suspicions that the horse could be a winner. He schooled Snowman, and at Rice Farm horse show they snatched the blue ribbon from the elite in a debut that caught the attention of the press. This horse that had been rescued from the glue factory was a newcomer to reckoned with. Despite another victory soon after, no one in the New York riding world took the duo seriously. Harry was ‘the farm boy with the farm horse’ and his win was deemed a fluke. At Ox Ridge show, Snowman was recognised as a ‘new star to flash across the firmament of the jumping world’ and, because of his rags to riches story, was dubbed ‘the Cinderella Horse’.
Soon, Snowman was a celebrity. He appeared on TV, had his own fan club, and was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, but he was also a much-loved member of the deLeyer family. When he eventually retired from the show ring he lived a pampered life on the farm for the remainder of his 26 years. After Snowman’s withdrawal from the limelight Harry continued to compete, delighting fans and becoming known as ‘the galloping grandfather’. The story of this unlikely duo has it all – drama, passion, humour – and it deserves a wide audience.
Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Rating out of 10: 10
Harry & Snowman is showing in selected cinemas until October 2016 and will be released on DVD & Digital from 21 September 2016.