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Tale of rescued champion horse 'Snowman' delivers timeless message

TOKYO--On a bleak winter's afternoon in 1956, riding instructor Harry de Leyer arrived so late at a horse auction that the only animals left were the “kills” — a rag-tag group of horses bound for the slaughterhouse.

Unwilling to waste the long drive, de Leyer glanced through the group of animals and had his eye caught by one dingy, grayish-white former plough horse, in whose eyes he thought he saw a spark of life. Wondering if he was being a sucker, he paid US$80 he could barely afford and took the horse home.

Two years later, the horse he named “Snowman” and used to teach riding to schoolgirls, ridden by de Leyer himself, won the National Championship.

“You ask (Harry) even now, tell me about the day you found Snowman, and he'll say 'I didn't know it then, but it was the luckiest day of my life,'” said Elizabeth Letts, author of “The Eighty-Dollar Champion,” a book chronicling the story of de Leyer and his horse, in a telephone interview.

“He feels grateful, that somehow there was this moment of serendipity and he found this horse, that his act of getting the horse off the truck was relatively small and the horse just paid him back and paid him back and paid him back.”

Trained as a rider in his native Netherlands, de Layer immigrated to the United States in 1950 with his wife and all of US$160 to his name. Eventually he landed a job as riding instructor at a private boarding school for girls, which was where he was when he bought Snowman.

Harry at one point sold Snowman, but the horse's stubborn insistence on jumping multiple fences to get back to him, including once dragging a tire tied to his lead rope, forced Harry to take him back in — and opened his eyes to the horse's unusual potential as a jumper.

The years of training that followed included remarkable feats such as de Leyer's habit of dropping the reins while actually jumping, which Letts — herself a rider — said implied unusual trust by giving the horse its freedom. Later, Snowman would do the nearly unheard-of by leaping over another horse in exhibitions. “What really captured me was that it was a daredevil feat, but the expression on the horse's face was so nonchalant and sweet-looking,” said Letts of a photograph she saw of this, which inspired her to write the book.

“You could tell that the horse just completely trusted the rider, to do this trick.”

Snowman's 1958 win at the National Horse Show electrified the nation, shadowed by an increasingly tense Cold War, with its rags-to-riches triumph, which many felt symbolized some of the best the United States had to offer.

Something of this message still resonates today as well, Letts said, noting that the financial crisis and recession meant that many high-quality horses have basically been abandoned by owners unable to keep them.

“So I think yes, the likelihood that there is a horse right now somewhere that could maybe be champion caliber is actually possible,” she said.

“But I think that belief is a little bit harder to come by, that idea that somehow you can compete with the money and a highly, highly professionalized sport — which I guess is not just riding but any sport.”

Though the scale of the sport is completely different, with pampered horses being massaged by chiropractors and fitted with custom saddles, Letts said that technically, the moves that horses do these days is little changed from 50 years ago.

“Maybe we can still do that,” she said. “Take what you have, and make the best you can and really do something unbelievable — not just in horses but in any area of life.

“I think this is a really good story for now, because it's a story about work hard and achieve your dreams and still be an ordinary person at the same time.”

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