When Harriet deLeyer was a young girl in the late 1950s, she and her siblings would take their father’s horse swimming in the Long Island Sound during the hot summer months.

The grey gelding liked to wade up to his chest, and the children would climb aboard, diving off his back into the cool, estuary waters.

©Bill Ray Photography

On one occasion, though, Harriet recalls things didn’t quite go according to plan. “When you rode in the water, it wasn’t like you were really in control or anything,” she says. “We just kind of went along for the ride.”

That realization proved especially telling on the day her father’s horse decided not to swim back toward shore, but instead, to head across the Sound, with a startled Harriet clinging to his mane. “I was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to end up in Connecticut!” she says.  

No more than nine at the time, Harriet’s burgeoning sense of terror grew as the shoreline receded further and further into the distance. That is, until she heard her father’s whistle.

“After that, the horse just kind of turned himself around and swam me right back to shore,” she says. Crisis averted.

©Bill Ray Photography

The Hollywood-style rescue would be an extraordinary story in its own right, were it not just one of many chapters in the near-mythical tale of Harry deLeyer and Snowman. For the uninitiated, the real-life plot goes something like this: A poor Dutch immigrant rises to American show jumping super-stardom on the back of an $80 ex-plow-horse that he saved, on a whim, from a slaughter auction pen in Pennsylvania. Together, Harry and Snowman went on to fame and fortune, winning the most acclaimed show jumping titles of their day, many of them more than once.

“I think the first year in 1958, when my Dad won the ‘Triple Crown’ of the jumper world—being named Professional Horseman Association Champion, being named Horse of the Year, being Champion in Madison Square Garden at the National Horse Show—that was a very clarifying moment for my father and Snowman. He felt like he had finally arrived. He wasn’t just the poor immigrant with the plow horse [anymore],” Harriet explains.

The surprising secret to Harry and Snowman’s success? Giving the somewhat unconventional gelding the freedom to jump and travel in his own style.

“Snowman was not a big horse, so he had to figure out his own way [in the ring],” Harriet explains. “That was my father’s thing, [to allow] him to jump the way he felt comfortable jumping, not saying, ‘Okay, we have to do this many strides [from this to this]. He allowed Snowman to excel to his own level, because he was doing it within himself. He wasn’t being manipulated.”


As many of us know, it can be difficult to explain the bond between horses and humans to fellow equestrians, let alone to non-riding friends and family.

“Are they like a dog?” is a common question.

“Does your horse recognize you when you come into the barn?”

While the Harry and Snowman story is every bit the feel-good, rags-to-riches tale it’s purported to be, it’s also a superlative example of the incredible connections that are possible between a rider and a horse.

Exhibit A: Early on in his career as an instructor at the prestigious Knox private school for girls on Long Island, Harry deLeyer decided to sell the always-dependable Snowman—then being used as a lesson horse—to a local doctor to settle a debt. It seemed a tidy solution for all involved, Snowman included.

But it was not to be.

On multiple occasions, the grey gelding jumped the doctor’s 5’ fence to return home to deLeyer’s Hollandia Farm. During his final outing, Snowman not only jumped out, he traveled the six miles home dragging a rope and heavy tire behind him.

Many years and multiple accolades later, Snowman, long into his peaceful retirement, was suffering from kidney failure, and Harry was forced to make the difficult decision to humanely put him down. Personally devastated, he asked his children to be there for him, worrying that he couldn’t handle witnessing Snowman’s end himself.

But once again, the ever-calm, kind, and eager-to-please Snowman exhibited a rare stubborn streak, refusing to leave his stall until Harry came to get him himself.

“Everybody was sort of hysterical that day,” says Harriet, who believes the relationship between her father and Snowman came down to a deep sense of gratitude on both their parts. “That’s how close their bond was. It just was not happening [that afternoon] without him.”

Like many of her siblings, Harriet was involved in her family’s training, sales, and breeding business from an early age, and was eventually inspired to follow in her father’s footsteps and enter the industry herself. Now a trainer at Wölffer Estate Stables in Sagaponack, New York, Harriet says she was aware as a child that her father’s almost preternatural bond with Snowman was unusual. That said, Harry deLeyer practiced what he preached. In and out of the irons, his number one lesson for both his children and his students was simple: You’re only ever as good as your partner.

Photo courtesy of the deLeyer family archives

Harriet took this advice to heart and says she has been fortunate enough to have worked with three, ‘Snowmen’-type horses in her own life. Most recently, that included an opinionated Argentinean lesson horse named HJ Benjamin, with whom she developed a special connection. After his training barn shut down, Benjamin was in danger of being sent to auction, and potentially on to slaughter. Harriet adopted him, using him in her own program before retiring him to “a beautiful field in Missouri” where he could comfortably live out his days.

Before that, there was the Thoroughbred mare, Dutch Erma, the first horse born at Hollandia Farms on Long Island’s North Shore.

“I got to raise her and train her and show her, and we were Champion of Long Island and won many ribbons [in the Junior and Amateur-Owner hunters],” Harriet explains. “She was only 15.1-and-a-half, so jumping 3’6” was a big jump for a little horse. But she was just one of those that [taught you] to stay out of the way. The less you did, the better she was.”

When Erma retired, she began her career as a broodmare, giving birth to her first foal, Dutch Precious, at the same time Harriet was having her own daughter, Charissa. The two grew up together, and Charissa went on to ride and show Precious, herself, just as her mother had done with Erma before her, and Harry and Snowman before them.

In each case, Harriet says, the bonds created were more than just a kind of temporary, transactional relationship between horse and rider. After all, no hard-won partnership comes without many long hours spent in the barn—celebrating wins, tending injuries, or simply enjoying a whinny of recognition at the end of a long hard day. For the deLeyers, special horses not only launched careers and shaped lives, they existed as part of the family decades, even long after their glory days on the circuit had passed.

“After his [show] career was over, Snowman lived out his life on our farm, and my dad was the one that turned him out every day, and brought him in himself every night.” Harriet says. Snowman paid Harry back three-fold, happy to not only swim in the Sound with his children, or tow them on skis through a winter field, but—with Harry in the irons—he’d gamely jump a 7’ puissance wall, or even over another horse when asked.

“[Snowman] knew that my father showed him a new and different life. And, because of that, he would always try his hardest to do whatever my father asked of him,” Harriet says, adding that the feeling was more than mutual.

 “My father absolutely adored that horse,” she says. “He was thankful every day.”

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