Harry de Leyer, the Dutch immigrant who became famous with his snow-white showjumping horse Snowman, has died at the age of 93.
Snowman and de Leyer’s “Cinderella story” has been immortalized in countless articles, four books including the acclaimed The Eighty-Dollar Champion, TV appearances, as well as in a feature-length documentary Harry and Snowman released in 2015 by Rob Davis. A 1962 book by Tony Palazzo, The Story of Snowman, the Cinderella Horse, is now out of print.
De Leyer, who was born in 1927 in Sint-Oedenrode in The Netherlands, grew up working on his family farm. He was the eldest of 12 children. De Leyer was part of the underground during World War 2 WII, and his family said he helped many Jewish people escape the Nazis through The Netherlands. An American soldier’s dog tags brought him to the US and the soldier’s family eventually sponsored de Leyer and his wife, Joan, to live in the United States.
As he began working on the sponsor’s farm in Long Island, New York, de Leyer was recognised for his talent training horses.
De Leyer found the miracle horse who launched his riding career on a Pennsylvania Horse Auction block in 1957. Arriving late, de Leyer was left with only the rejects of the auction that were already boarded on a truck heading to a slaughter plant. He laid eyes on a tall, white former Amish plough horse, and bought him for $80.
De Leyer named him Snowman and used him as a lesson horse for children at his barn. He sold the horse to a neighbor, but recognized jumping talent and potential in Snomwan as he cleared every obstacle to jump his way back “home” to de Leyer’s farm six miles down the road. That began his showjumping career, which lasted five years.
In 1959, Snowman made history as the first horse to win the Open Jumper Championship two years in a row.
The loveable grey took the equestrian sport by storm, also appearing on television shows such as Johnny Carson’s where it is well remembered that Carson climbed aboard. Snowman had his own fan club, and was flown aboard for “guest appearances.”
The dynamic duo stayed together throughout Snowman’s retirement at de Leyer’s farm at St James on the north shore of Long Island, until he died at the age of 26 in 1974. He was euthanised after suffering from complications of kidney failure. Snowman was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2005 he was made into a Breyer horse model based on the Gem Twist mould, and again in 2013 with “Snowman – Show Jumping Hall of Famer”, based on the Idocus mould.
De Leyer, who was known affectionately as “the Galloping Grandfather”, taught riding for 22 years at the Knox School. After the Snowman eta, De Leyer went on to become one of the most successful riders and trainers in the USA. He represented the United States at the World Championships in Sweden in 1983 and was recognized by the United States Equestrian Foundation with a Pegasus Medal of Honor in 2002 for his lifetime contribution to the sport.
De Leyer, who died on June 25, 2021, is survived by five of his eight children, Harriet, Martin, Andre, John and AnnMarie, and 15 grandchildren, a great-grandchild, and a great-great-grandchild.
He was predeceased by his wife, Joan, and three sons Joseph, Harry Jr, and William.