Melting the Competition

Harry & Snowman is the story of trainer Harry de Leyer and his champion jumper, a former plow horse named Snowman. The two best friends relax among a few of their ribbons. (Courtesy Docutainment Films)

Harry & Snowman is the story of trainer Harry de Leyer and his champion jumper, a former plow horse named Snowman. The two best friends relax among a few of their ribbons. (Courtesy Docutainment Films)

True story about champion jumper is full of miraculous twists and turns

If ever there were a perfect pairing of movie and audience, it’s the upcoming holiday presentation of Harry & Snowman in the horse-crazy town of Tryon. The true “nags to riches” tale was shown as part of a gala event last year at the first Tryon International Film Festival, but now you can see it at Tryon Theatre’s regular low admission.

It’s a documentary, but don’t let that make you shy away. In the hands of talented American filmmaker Ron Davis, the 84-minute film is as action-packed and emotional as a blockbuster dramatic film. Thanks to the combination of a wealth of historical footage — home movies, news reels, and archival film — weaved in with contemporary interviews, the film creates a mesmerizing you-are-there feel.

In 1950, Harry de Leyer left the village of St. Oedenrode in war-ravaged Holland with his bride on his arm and $160 in his pocket. His American destination was a tobacco farm in Greensboro, NC, where a war-time Resistance connection had offered him a home. Next step was to take his growing brood (eventually eight children) up to a horse farm on Long Island. He applied for the job as riding instructor at the tony Knox School for girls in nearby Nissequogue. Some school administrators were concerned he was too good-looking to be surrounded by adolescent girls. But it all worked out, and “Mr. D.” taught there for 22 years.

In winter 1956, Harry drove to the horse auction in New Holland, Pennsylvania. He was looking for a placid horse that was also broad enough to carry some of his heavier students. But a flat tire meant he didn’t get there until the auction was over. The horses who weren’t sold were already being herded into a van headed for slaughter. A big gray Amish gelding, with a hole in his shoulder from pulling a plow, locked eyes with Harry. “We clicked,” Harry says. “We were connected.” After haggling (“I’m Dutch!” Harry laughs), he paid $80 for the plow horse.

It was snowing when the horse arrived at the de Leyer farm. Four-year-old Harriet named the horse “Snowman,” and it stuck. After several baths, the beauty of the horse was revealed and with his calm, unflappable disposition he became a steady lesson horse and the pet of the de Leyer family. But Harry, by nature intensely competitive in everything he did, also wanted a horse that he could turn into a fine jumper. He dreamed of winning equine events against high-society horses. Alas, Snowman, left to his own devices, showed no jumping talent. It took another set of unpredictable events to change Harry’s mind and drastically impact both their lives.

To settle a business misunderstanding, Harry sold Snowman to a doctor who lived six miles away. To everyone’s surprise, Snowman kept showing back up at the de Leyer farm. The only way the horse could have done this was by jumping high fences. Since Snowman had unexpectedly proved his natural ability to jump, Harry felt he had nothing to lose by teaching him how to do it the right way.

Jumper competitions takes place over a course of obstacles, including verticals, spreads, and double and triple combinations. A horse must be able to not only jump large fences but also handle the sharp turns and bursts of speed necessary to navigate the course in the allotted time. Most jumper horses are thoroughbreds, trained to jump as youngsters.

The mature Snowman soon revealed an astonishing secret — he actually loved to jump, and when he learned how to do it properly, he was a natural competitor. When he and Harry entered the arena, the society folks sometimes laughed: “The farm boy and his farm horse,” was the scornful attitude. But the bluebloods had red faces when Snowman shocked everyone by consistently winning against those expensive, skittish, high-class thoroughbreds.

“He could jump the biggest jumps, 7 feet 2 inches,” Harry said in an interview in the East Hampton Star. “He was a freak. Drop the reins and he would keep pushing.” Harry and Snowman won back-to-back national championships, and in 1958 they took the Triple Crown of show jumping, beating thoroughbreds worth many thousands of dollars. The “Cinderella” horse became the most famous horse in the country, thanks to an adoring equine press and appearances on national TV, including with Johnny Carson. Snowman’s career lasted for five years, then he retired happily at the de Leyer farm.

The documentary features an 85-year-old Harry, now known as the “Galloping Grandfather,” who still rides every day at his farm in Charlottesville, Virginia. True to its title, the film narrows its focus to the relationship Harry had with Snowman, his professed “best friend.” We’re left curious about the rest of Harry’s life, particularly his relationships with his family and other horses. Several books have been written about Harry and Snowman that might answer those questions.

Harry’s advice to riders also holds true for anyone who wants to achieve an unlikely dream: “Throw your heart over the top,” he says, “and your horse will follow.”

Harry & Snowman at the Tryon Theatre Film Society at Tryon Theatre (45 South Trade St.), Monday, December 12 and $8/general, $6.50/members. www.tryontheatre.com. Phone: 828-859-6811

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