His documentary isn’t 80 minutes of sugar-coated sentimentality, it’s a warts-and-all coverage of a man with a somewhat obsessive, egotistical personality who persisted as a rider far past a conventional retirement age, earning him the title “The Galloping Grandfather’’. The New York Times once called him “the most flamboyant figure in a highly conservative sport, running and jumping his horses in heart-stopping unorthodox style and flinging his cap into the air— and often into the crowd — after clear rounds”.
When asked about his riding style, one very reminiscent of Australia’s Kevin Bacon, Harry pointed to a photograph: “This is of Snowman and me jumping 7’1” (215.9cm) at Fairfield and I didn’t use the reins at all. I only held on with my knees. It’s more athletic. The horse can jump better if he uses his head and neck for balance. I used loose reins and I only used a rubber snaffle bit with Snowman, and all my horses. I discovered rubber snaffle bits during the war.
“When I was young,” continued Harry, “I used to go to all the shows nearby and I watched every horse and rider. Dutch jumper Jan de Bruine had this forward style and he taught me. He won silver at the Berlin Olympics. He taught me to ride to reward the horse by not hanging on to his mouth and to be soft and forward. I was eight years old when I started taking lessons from him.
“After the war, I watched German rider, Hans Günter Winkler, in Antwerp and other places in Holland. He rode forward. He won Olympic gold in Stockholm on the great mare Halla. After the war, in Holland, I also saw the d’Inzeo brothers from the Italian cavalry jumping with a soft style and much more forward than the Germans.”
Harry’s unconventional style did not stop him from enjoying a fruitful equestrian career. After the Snowman era he went on to become one of the most successful riders and trainers in the States. He represented the USA at the World Championships in Sweden in 1983 and was recognised by the USEF with a Pegasus Medal of Honour in 2002 for his lifetime contribution to the sport.
Snowman retired at the deLeyer farm at St James, on the north shore of Long Island. In 1974, with Harry sitting close to him, he was euthanised at the age of 26 after suffering from complications of kidney failure. He was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992. Harry deLeyer died last year on June 25 aged 93 in a nursing home in Virginia. He is survived by five of his eight children, 15 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandson.
In 2011 his kind, gentle horse was the subject of Elizabeth Letts’ book The Eighty Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation, published by Random House. It became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. EQ