Harry and the Snowman
I have always had a soft spot for movies about animals, but if you’re talking horses, it becomes something of an over –the- top kind of hero worship. Then you add the next important ingredient: a kind, compassionate human to the mix, and I end up in the stratosphere. Recently I watched a documentary outdoors under the stars at Glen Park in Portsmouth, RI; it is the kind of story that helps you have faith in humanity when at times this can be a real challenge.
Harry and the Snowman tells the story of Harry de Leyer, a Dutch immigrant, who came to the US after WWII to begin a new life and buys a horse off a truck bound for the slaughter house for eighty dollars. Harry names him Snowman, and the two proceed to change each other’s lives in a most extraordinary way. This underdog story is the stuff of legend, but every detail is true and elicits goose bumps.
We are provided an early history of Harry; born in 1928 in the village of Oedenrode, Holland, he grows up the son of a successful local brewer and horseman. Harry and his eleven siblings work on the farm and after their chores are done are allowed to ride the horses on the family farm. This is where Harry learns to become the quintessential horseman: always kind and patient when working with horses and never using punishment as a training technique. He understands the intelligence and sensitivity of these proud, dignified animals. As a teenager during the Nazi occupation of his country, Harry joins the resistance and even manages to take care of the horses the Nazis leave behind to starve once they are finished with them. Harry’s love of horses runs deep, and he will do anything he can to help people and animals in need. It is easy to fall in love with this pair.
Soon after Harry has bought Snowman, he sells him to a man five miles down the road so the man’s son can learn to ride on a safe horse with the stipulation that the man must sell him back to Harry and no one else. After Snowman relocates to the barn down the road, Harry finds Snowman back in his own paddock. This happens a few more times, and all parties realize that Snowman has jumped the five-foot fence to get back to his real home with Harry. At one point, Snowman wants to return to Harry so badly that he jumps the fences and runs five miles down the road dragging a tire and a piece of wood behind him. The discovery about this one-time Amish plow horse is that he can jump very high, especially if it means he will be closer to his best friend, Harry, who decides to begin training him to jump for competition.
Harry earns a position as a riding instructor at the Knox School for Girls, an elite private school for wealthy girls in St. James, New York on Long Island. When Snowman is not being used as a school horse there during the academic year, he is part of the de Leyer’s family. Old footage shows the de Leyer’s children swimming at the beach on Snowman’s back. The horse loves to swim and moves like a large, furry dolphin through the water carrying two and three children at a time. When he stops to stand in the water, he patiently waits for the kids to use him as a diving board. I have never seen anything like this, and it becomes apparent that this horse loves the family as much as they love him. It is as though he is innately aware that Harry saved him. Maybe he does “know” intuitively because of all the love that surrounds him.
Against all odds, Snowman wins the Open Jumper Championship at Madison Square Garden two years in a row: 1958 and 1959. At the time, Life Magazine called his unique rise to fame, “The greatest ‘nags-to-riches’ story since Black Beauty.” He was so talented and even tempered that he won a leadline class and an open jumper championship on the same day. As Harry would say, his horse had bottom; his heart had no bounds, and he would do anything for the people he loved. Snowman lived out the rest of his life on Harry’s farm; true to his word, Harry would never sell Snowman no matter how much he was offered. At the age of 26, Snowman’s kidneys began to fail and Harry was by his side when he was euthanized.
Please read the book, watch the documentary with your children, and pass along this most inspirational and poignant horse stories ever told.