Book review: ‘The Eighty- Dollar Champion’ by Elizabeth Betts


“The Eighty-Dollar Champion” is nonfiction, based on actual events. Much of the story took place in the mid-1950s. Harry de Leyer had made his way to the United States from Holland with little more than a new bride, a well-used saddle and a gift for working with horses. Eventually he found employment as a riding instructor for an elite girls’ boarding school on Long Island. When car trouble made him late for an Amish horse auction, the only choices left were horses already being loaded for slaughter. Not wanting to go home empty-handed, de Leyer examined those horses and saw one, though showing the scars of hard work on the plow, that still looked as though he could be of use as a lesson horse. Upon closer examination, the gelding appeared to be about 8 years old and basically sound. The driver agreed upon an $80 price, including delivery, since the de Leyer residence was on the truck’s route to the slaughterhouse.

The gray gelding was named Snowman by the de Leyer children when his arrival was accompanied by fresh snow. Snowman’s renewal was a family project. He was curried, provided an appropriate diet and was loved. In turn, he responded well to the attention, proving to be a steadying influence in the stable and a reliable lesson horse. While he still had the build of a plow horse, he now was a well-groomed one.

Among other things, de Leyer taught the schoolgirls the basics of show horse jumping. A skilled rider in his homeland, he had participated in show horse jumping there. He and Snowman proved to be excellent teachers. Snowman supplemented de Leyer’s knowledge with a personality that encouraged confidence to even the most timid participant.

Events conspired to prove that the well-muscled plow horse was much more than that. When Snowman started hurtling pasture fences on his own, de Leyer realized that with the appropriate training, he might be something special. Snowman and de Leyer began earning ribbons at local shows. Show jumping involved jumping a series of fences, some as high as 6 feet or more. The height and pattern varied, and often the ride was timed. A clean run was one where no bars were touched or dislodged. If more than one horse had a clean run, the bars were raised and there was a jump off. Snowman was ready; it was time for the national circuit.

Horse shows in the East had been something of a high-society pastime; starting as a way for the upper crust to show off their carriage horses, they had evolved. While the influence of old money was slowly being eroded, that was not apparent at jumping events. Most still had special seating for the well-to-do, and thoroughbreds owned by them still dominated the sport.

The book’s subtitle, “Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation,” would suggest success on the national circuit. There is more to the story.

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