Heartwarming story about a man and his horse

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Harry de Leyer had a problem; his horse wouldn’t stay sold.

He couldn’t understand why — or, perhaps more importantly, how. Snowman wasn’t the high-spirited type that would usually cause trouble. Harry had seen the potential for a good steady horse for his riding school when he bought the run-down white gelding off a knacker’s cart for $80, and once nursed back to health, Snowman had proven a calm, well-mannered mount.

When the local doctor was looking for a quiet horse for his children, Harry had had no reservations about selling him Snowman. But now the doctor was mad, and getting madder every day, because every day Snowman escaped his pen and ran back home to Harry.

What was even more confusing was how the horse was doing it. Harry and the doctor went over every inch of the paddock looking for missing or damaged fencing, with no luck. It seemed absurd that the horse was jumping the paddock fence, but just in case, they moved him to a small, high-fenced pen that no normal horse would jump out of. But there was Snowball the next morning, poking his head into Harry’s stable. Even a tire-tether couldn’t contain Snowball, as he trotted in smugly dragging the tire behind him. Staring at his old horse in astonishment, knowing he had jumped fence after high fence to get home, Harry finally looked past the plow-harness scars on the white coat and saw the heart of a champion.

Just as Snowman was no ordinary plow horse, so Harry was no ordinary riding instructor. An immigrant from Holland to America after World War II, he was an extremely gifted horse trainer and rider who would probably have ridden for the Olympics if it weren’t for the Nazi invasion. Though he now taught riding to the young ladies at the Knox School, he had never given up on a private dream: to find and train a champion jumping horse.

He’d had opportunities to train horses for others — wealthy owners of multimillion-dollar stables — but Harry, fiercely independent, wanted a champion of his own. In fact, he’d been looking for a fine thoroughbred when he went to that horse sale, but it was the end of the day, and the only horse left was one worn-out, run-down plow horse on the back of a knacker’s cart: Snowman.

“The Eighty Dollar Champion” by Elizabeth Letts tells the true story of Snowman and Harry de Leyer, partners who proved that hard work and a willing heart could form the unlikeliest of champions. “Heartwarming” and “inspirational” are words that get thrown around too much, but they truly apply here as Letts weaves in the histories and personalities of the protagonists and builds up to the triumphant conclusion. It’s a must-read for horse lovers, and a should-read for anyone who loves a good underdog — or underhorse — story.

Genevieve Baillie is the extension services librarian at the Wilson County Public Library.