Rachel's Reviews > The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation

The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts
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's review
Jul 21, 2012

really liked it
Read from July 06 to 21, 2012

This is not just a book, it is a story - a true story - about a man who picked a horse from a truck bound for the slaughter house, purchased him for eighty dollars in 1956, and went on win the National Horse Show open jumper championship at Madison Square Garden in 1958.

The horse, nicknamed Snowman, was an old plow horse - big, gray and gentle. The man, Harry de Leyer, an immigrant from Holland, began using the horse for lessons at an all girls boarding school. He was a gentle, predictable and safe ride for the girls, but one they felt proud to surpass for the flashy, higher strung horses in the barn. He tried to teach the horse to jump by asking him to step over poles barely off the ground, but the horse knocked his feet on them every time. A while later, hard times prompted Harry to sell Snowman to a man down the road for $160. But the horse returned to Harry by jumping the pasture fence. This continued day after day until the new owner was so fed up with the 'jumper' that Harry sold him, that Harry bought Snowman back. At one point, the man told Harry he had promised the man a quiet horse and instead sold him an overpriced jumped. Harry responded by saying 'had he known he was a jumper, he would have charged the man more.' Harry put Snowman back in the barn at the school as a lesson horse, but began working with Snowman at jumping. He cleared five-foot fences with little effort at all! Snowman excelled so much and so effortlessly that Harry began entering Snowman in shows - putting the big eighty-dollar gray ex-plow horse up against the country's top horses - lean, expensive, and hot-blooded - and rode Snowman himself. Harry and Snowman were quite a sight, compared to the other riders and owners, and they were laughed at early on. But as the big horse began winning ribbons and trophies, he quickly gained notoriety as the 'Cinderella Horse', and Harry as 'the Flying Dutchman'. Everyone was fascinated with the unlikely pair who rose from nothing to champions in only a few years time.

The book is chocked full of history - of Harry and his life in Holland before coming to America, and of horses - helping readers to understand where Harry came from and what the horse world is really like. It is told in great detail, and the writing is excellent. Elizabeth Letts ties the story together with truth and emotion. But the real story, the one that touched me, is the story of a bond between a horse and the man who chose him because he 'saw something in his eyes'. It is the story of a man who loved and trusted a horse, and a horse who loved and aimed to please the man. It is the story of a horse who flicked his ears back to hear the man speak just before he entered the show ring. The story of a man who jumped a horse on a loose rein to communicate trust to the horse. Of a man who refused to sell the horse after his championship win for a blank check. Of a man who took off his riding clothes after a show and stepped into his coveralls to do chores and care for his home and horses. Of a horse who carried the man's children on his back - three and four at a time - to the beach and swam in the water with them on his back. A horse who continued to earn his keep as a dependable lesson horse, even after he won the highest honor bestowable on a horse. A horse who would run and jump a course -without a rider on his back! A horse who jumped over a ribbon at his retirement celebration at Madison Square Garden, instead of running through it. A horse who whined three times in greeting each morning when the man entered the barn.

And of a horse who, when his time came - after the first morning of his life he had not issued the three whiny greeting - wouldn't move from his stall without the man leading him to take his final breath. And a man so affected by the loss he walked away from the grave and didn't return for two days.

It is a beautiful story of a bond between an animal and a human, which is something we can all relate to. And it is the story of a horse who rose to greatness because of a patient and loving horseman.

Before the Horse Whisperer, or Clinton Anderson, there was Harry de Leyer. His way with horses is legend, and he is still alive today - now known as the 'Galloping Grandfather' - and rides despite falling from a haystack on his head and breaking his back in several places.
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Avidreader Great review! You caught the essense!

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