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Underdogs triumph in 'Harry & Snowman'

It’s said a dog is human’s best friend, but Harry deLeyer would beg to differ.

“Harry & Snowman” tells the touching story of the bond the Dutch immigrant and horse trainer formed with a discarded plow horse purchased off a truck headed to the slaughterhouse in 1956 for $80. In two years, and with deLeyer riding him, the gray gelding would become the most acclaimed show jumper in the world.

“Snowman was more than just a horse to me,” deLeyer, 86, recalls in the uplifting film, where he’s shown training young riders. “He was my best friend. Most people live their whole life and never get a friend like Snowman.”

Snowman was used at first to teach riding lessons at an elite girls school, where de Leyer worked for 22 years. But the horse’s talent for jumping became clear after de Leyer sold the horse to a neighbor six miles away, and Snowman cleared a fence to return. When he was brought back and did it again a second time three days later, scaling a taller fence, the sale was rescinded and Snowman was set off on a path to become a show jumper.

As Harriet de Leyer, one of Harry’s eight children, recalls, the horse seemed to know her father saved his life, and the two shared a special closeness until the horse’s last, dying day.

Snowman was also devoted to the whole family, and would let the kids use him as a diving board when they swam in the river, or pull them along on sleds in the winter.

Director Ron Davis uses entertaining home movies, newsreels, and old clippings to bring Harry and Snowman’s story to life. De Leyer's life also has a fascinating backstory. He was involved in the underground as a teenager in World War II, and his family hid Jews in cellars on their farm for days at a time.

Interviews with the de Leyer children speak of a deep respect for their father, and of hard work and sacrifice on the farm. But while de Leyer expected the children to be successful in horse competitions in order to further his horse training business, they were also never to overshadow him.

Curiously, while the older de Leyer is filmed reminiscing with former students of the girl’s school, there are no such scenes with his children. His divorce from wife Johanna -- she wanted him to give up horses after a fall nearly killed one of the kids, who it's suggested he should have been more attentive to during her recovery -- is also glossed over.

There’s a class aspect to the film that has the viewer rooting for the two underdogs. Equestrian competitions are generally a sport for bluebloods, and Harry and his “Cinderella Horse” had to triumph over the elite competition, winning the Open Jumper Championship two years in a row at the glitzy National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden in 1958 and 1959, when horse shows were a very high profile sport.

 The incredible Snowman won the Triple Crown of show jumping that first year, and was named "Horse of the Year" then and again in 1959. The former farm horse's unlikely accomplishments would send him and de Leyer to perform in Europe, and onto "The Tonight Show," where Johnny Carson climbed on his back.

Snowman's story helped raise awareness of animal welfare concerns over the treatment of farm horses.

Snowman retired in 1962, and died in 1974, at the age of 26. De Leyer continued to perform into the 1980s, when he was known as the "galloping grandfather," but he never lost sight of the horse's importance.

"He made me," de Leyer said, choking up at the horse's gravestone, which like the account of the horse's last day is a tearjerker.

For those who can’t get enough of Snowman’s story, a feature film about the steed is expected to be coming to a movie theater in the near future. The 2011 book, “Eighty Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation,” by Elizabeth Letts, is being made into a film by MGM Studios.

Movie Review

“Harry & Snowman”

3 1/2 stars (Out of four)

Starring Harry deLeyer. Directed by Ron Davis. 83 minutes. Not rated but G equivalent.

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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