Our equestrian history keeps moving on, but Ron Davis doesn’t want to let it get away.
His documentary, “Harry and Snowman,” recounts one of the great horse stories of our time in the words of Harry de Leyer, the man who lived it, along with the observations of his contemporaries and family.
The movie, which opens Sept. 30 in dozens of cities, focuses on Harry and the Amish plow horse he rescued from a one-way trip to the slaughterhouse. The gelding, purchased for a mere $80, turned out to be a remarkable jumper who developed into an unlikely superstar, becoming an international celebrity in the late 1950s, along with his owner. They were media darlings who made the headlines of major publications, appeared on such iconic TV shows as “To Tell the Truth,” and were interviewed on-air (well, Harry was interviewed) by Dick Cavett. Johnny Carson even climbed into Snowman’s saddle on his program.
“I knew who Harry was, but never heard the Snowman story,” said Ron, 48, a native of Kinnelon who grew up riding at the A-rated shows with Mike Henaghan and Gary Zook. He qualified for the USEF Medal and ASPCA Maclay finals, and won 18 USET Talent Search classes before he stopped riding in the early 1990s.
“I’ve kind of been there,” he said, explaining why he no longer rides, but adds, “I don’t think anyone gets through a riding career like I did and has not taken away a huge part of who your are from that.
He also noted that if he hadn’t ridden, he wouldn’t have been interested in the subject. Nor would he have had the access to people he needed, including George Morris and Rodney Jenkins, both of whom appear in the film. You’ll see other familiar names on the credits, including one of the executive producers, Karen Reid Offield, well-known in the dressage world, announcer Peter Doubleday and jumper rider Donald Cheska, one of the re-enactors.
Ron’s next film will be about a rescue of a different kind, the dog rescue run by well-known horsemen Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta.
“Almost all the important things in my life are connected in some way to my early life in the horse world,” he said, noting it was his horse friends who bought him to Wellington, Fla., where he lives.
Ron was in book publishing, dealing with sales, marketing and rights, when he went to school at night to learn about filmmaking. It was a hobby at first.
“Then I decided I wanted to turn it into a career,” he said. Six months after he decided to do it, he had a deal with HBO.
When Elizabeth Letts’ sensational book, “Snowman: The $80 Champion,”came out, a friend called it to Ron’s attention. The tale intrigued the film director.
“The book absolutely inspired my knowing what the story was,” he said.
Yet Ron also notes he hasn’t read the book, because “as a documentary filmmaker, for a story like this, I wouldn’t do research. If the people were all alive, I would go and hear it firsthand and not have a skewed idea of it.”
As he pondered the concept, Ron said, “I thought this story would be great to tell in a documentary, only if Harry was alive and well. He had to be able to tell the story.”
When he met Harry, still taking care of the horses and driving the truck to shows in his mid-80s, Ron thought, “This is perfect.
“I said, `How would you like to do this?’ No surprise, Harry said, `Absolutely.’ We hit it off. He started telling me the story.”
Ron didn’t want to have anyone else recount the Harry and Snowman relationship for him. He was interested in hearing the details for the first time when the camera was on because that’s the way it happens for the audience.
“That’s their experience,” he explained.
From the bit he did know about Harry and Snowman, the filmmaker said, “I didn’t believe in the Cinderella version. I thought it had been romanticized over 50 years. There was no way the horse really loved him.” But as he got into the project, Ron realized he’d been wrong.
“I was really surprised that my cynical heart and mind was changed very quickly. When you start to know the story and hear it from lots of different people and see it through the lens as I did with all the archival footage, I really then understood there was this bond between them, and more so initially, from Snowman to Harry. I had a different perspective as I learned the story.”
Although Harry had another top horse decades later in his homebred Dutch Crown, who tied for first place in the initial leg of the 1982 World Cup Finals, “Snowman is the one who put him on the map,” said Ron.
“He’s the one who’s a part of his family. It was the beginning.”
On the wall of Harry’s dining room, Snowman’s retirement cooler is framed, and his bridle hangs beside it.
The old films used in the documentary takes viewers back to another era when, as George Morris put it in an interview he did for the film, “Horse showing in the 1950s was a very high-profile sport,” covered on both the sports pages and the society pages.
“People who attended shows were old American aristocracy. It was very social.”
Ron summed it up this way: “Less business, more sport.”
George said the hunter division was front and center. He called the jumper division, “the stepchild to the high society hunter division.
“As a rule, people of less social status owned jumpers. The jumper people were scruffier than the hunter people. It definitely was the haves and the have-nots.”
Harry was a have-not. An immigrant from the Netherlands, he worked with the underground during World War II. He grew up on a farm, so he knew about horses. Harry eventually became the riding master of the Knox School on Long Island, and bought Snowman when he was looking for school horses.
Snowman was sold to a doctor down the road, but he kept jumping the fence and running back to Harry, his rescuer. Finally, the last time Snowman returned, Harry vowed never to sell the horse. When he found out the plow horse could jump, he started going to horse shows.
Although he may not have looked like much, Snowman could fly. At an elite show in the Northeast early in his show career, he finished ahead of Windsor Castle, at that time the most expensive jumper ever sold at the price of $50,000. Snowman went on to be a champion twice in Madison Square Garden when the National Horse Show was the start of the New York City social season, attended by movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor.
At the height of Snowman’s fame, Harry was offered a blank check for the horse, but turned it down. He couldn’t sell the family pet.
The sweet-natured animal was an all-arounder who would take several of Harry’s kids swimming on his back and pulled a sleigh. He would jump anything. Harry would put a horse in the middle of an oxer, then have Snowman leap over it. He also set a puissance record. It seemed there was nothing that special horse couldn’t do. Harry had a flamboyant style that developed over the years, as he would pivot on his knees over a fence and throw his hunt cap in the air after a successful round. The fans loved him. You will too.
The film has so many interesting details that I won’t reveal here, so go and see it if it’s near you.
Ron noted that normally, “You wouldn’t say on a Friday night, `Let’s take the family to a documentary.’” But you can do it with this one.
As the director observed, “Everybody loves a good horse story, from Black Beauty to National Velvet.”
But the best thing about this one is that it’s true.