Horsin' around: Galloping Grandfather keeps on riding
Harry de Leyer can fly. Photos of him soaring over seven-foot jumps atop champion steeds line the walls of his trophy-filled farmhouse in Dyke. A painting of him over the fireplace depicts that same pose: airborne.
When the Dutch-born horseman took an $80 workhorse he'd rescued on its way to the slaughterhouse to the prestigious National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden– and won– in 1958, his legendary status was assured.
That horse and de Leyer are the subject of Elizabeth Letts' just-released book, The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation, which debuted at number 10 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Of course for de Leyer, it's the third time he and his thoroughbred-butt-kicking workhorse have been the subjects of books.
Just as the story of Snowman is awe-inspiring, so, too, is de Leyer's tale of coming from war-ravaged Holland to the United States with a bride and $160 in his pocket to work at a tobacco farm in Greensboro, North Carolina. From there he parlayed his equine skills into the annals of horse history.
"My father had a brewery," says de Leyer, "and the beer was all delivered with horses. Horses were always around me."
By the time he was seven years old, de Leyer was competing in horse shows against adults. "There was no junior division," he chuckles.
When he was 13 years old, the Nazi invasion of Holland forever changed de Leyer's life in the village of St. Oedenrode. The Germans rounded up the horses for use in the war, and young Harry contributed to the Resistance as a teenager, smuggling grain through Nazi checkpoints and braving gunfire to reach a fire hose to save the village's burning hospital.
After the war, his family was no longer prosperous and de Leyer headed to America. "I came in 1950 to this country, and was only here eight years and Snowman was the champion in Madison Square Garden," says de Leyer, with a note of pride.
"People touched by Harry and Snowman's story feel that they can have the courage to go after a long-shot dream even if they don't have the tools, or the money, or the background," says author Letts, who notes that de Leyer could have easily been corrupted by the spotlight, but instead went back to doing what he loved: teaching children to ride, training horses, and "jumping them for the joy of it."
And Snowman wasn't his only champion. De Leyer trained Show Jumping Hall of Famer Sinjon, who went to the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
"Every horse that wins for me is exciting," says de Leyer. "I had one that won last week."
De Leyer walks a reporter through his 40-stall barn with its indoor riding ring. At the end, a whinny from Landjonker, whose stall door is covered with ribbons, greets de Leyer. "He knows when I come what I have in my pocket," says the trainer, who pulls out a piece of carrot for his current favorite.
Still riding, De Leyer, who turns 84 on September 21, makes a few concessions to his age, and to the back he broke at age 77 in a fall off a hay baler. Now, he rides two or three horses a day, rather than the seven or eight he used to.
And what about still soaring over those seven-foot-high jumps? Says de Leyer, "If I had the horse, I would do it."
Harry de Leyer and The Eighty-Dollar Horse author Elizabeth Letts will appear at Over the Moon Bookstore & Artisan Gallery in Crozet on de Leyer's birthday: Wednesday, September 21, from 6 to 8pm.