Two long shots, a blue-collar owner and his unlikely horse, make it to the top of the equestrian world.
Responding to the postwar American demand for farm labor, young Harry de Leyer emigrated from Holland and settled in Long Island, and his talent with horses earned him a job as riding master at an all-girls boarding school. Arriving late to an auction in 1956, he offered $80 for a flea-bitten, undernourished, gray gelding, already loaded onto a slaughterhouse truck. His kids dubbed the lumbering, 8-year-old former plow horse Snowman, and the animal’s sweet disposition made him a favorite among the Knox School’s novice riders. Indeed, de Leyer turned a small profit reselling Snowman to a neighbor seeking a docile mount for his daughter. Only when Snowman repeatedly jumped his paddock fence to return to de Leyer’s farm did the trainer belatedly recognize the horse’s hidden talent. In telling how de Leyer turned Snowman’s untapped potential into a two-time National Horse Show champion, novelist Letts (Family Planning, 2006, etc.) strains too hard to portray the story as an antidote to an era—economic downturn and nuclear dread notwithstanding, the late ’50s were hardly as desperate as she makes out—but she’s dead right about the unprecedented media environment—glossies and newspapers still flourished, TV was firmly established—that catapulted Snowman’s legend well beyond the privileged confines of the show-jumping aficionados. An experienced equestrienne, Letts perfectly understands the high-society horse world, the politics and the intricacies of the high-jump competitions and the challenges facing a low-budget arriviste. At its core, though, this is the story of de Leyer and Snowman, about the elusive qualities that make a champion jumper and the special gifts required to read a horse’s signals. Readers skittish around sentiment may balk, but Letts’ gentle touch proves entirely suitable to this genuinely sweet tale.
A heartwarming story begging for the Disney treatment.