Peg'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
Oct 19, 2011

really liked it
Read in October, 2011

When I found this book at Costco, I knew I had to buy it. Harry de Leyer is an immigrant who, along with his wife Johanna, left Holland after WWII, having survived the Nazi occupation of their homeland. They came, as did many others, seeking the opportunity and freedom of the United States. Relegated to menial jobs, Harry was eventually able to use his experience and expertise with horses to secure a job as the instructor for equestrian activities at a prestigious girls' school on Long Island.

This true story opens with Harry showing up late for the day's bidding on horses at New Holland, a weekly auction in the PA Dutch country. No horses are left except those that are already loaded into a truck that will take them off to the "glue factory." A "moment" passes between Harry and a big gray waiting in the bed of the van. Although the horse is undernourished and has obviously been used as a plow horse, something pulls at Harry and he offers the driver $80 for the animal. Once back at his small farm on Long island, Harry spends time caring for the horse, healing the sores caused by pulling the plow, trimming his feet that were overgrown and cleaning his coat until it reflected the horse's improving health. Eventually the horse is put to work, as a lesson horse for the girls at the school. Summer comes and the students go home. Harry can't afford to feed the horse while it is not being used, so he sells the animal for $160 to a doctor who has a farm down the road. The horse is thoroughly quiet and perfectly suited to the doctor's child who is just beginning to ride. All is well until the horse starts showing up at Harry's farm. Gates and fences are checked, but ultimately all realize that the big gray horse is jumping the various obstacles and returning to Harry's farm. The new owner is finally ready to be rid of the horse who won't stay where he is put and Harry once again owns the horse who is known as Snowman. As the story unfolds, Snowman becomes, against all odds, a champion open jumper who wins many of the top competitions in the late 1950's and early 60's. He is jumping against horses well known both on the national and international show circuit.

The reason that I had to buy the book, aside from the obvious, is that as a teenager my parents took our family to the Pa National Horse Show every year. This was one of the shows where Snowman competed. I remember seeing him several times, along with one of his arch rivals, Windsor Castle among others. Also the book details the riders and horses that competed for the US and other national equestrian teams. I loved the pageantry and white-knuckled excitement as these beautiful animals soared over the most daunting and seemingly impossible jumps.

The author has written an very interesting book, but is a bit heavy handed when it comes to driving home such themes as the contrast between Snowman, the plow horse, and the highly refined and expensive thoroughbreds that were his competition. She also repeatedly emphasizes the difference between old money and the status of immigrants, as well as Harry's wartime experiences and Snowman's near end after the auction. If the author had been a bit more deft in portraying these very real differences, I would be tempted to give the book a 5 star rating.

A final note: One of the facts that I enjoyed most was that between competitive seasons, Snowman returned to the riding school and was a favorite of so many of the students who were just learning to ride. His calm demeanor and ability to care for his riders, in addition to his fantastic ability to fly over the most daunting fences, made him one of a kind.
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