“Harry & Snowman:” a backstory

Published 12:31 pm Thursday, December 17, 2015

Karin Offield with her international dressage horse, Lingh. (Gabriele Boiselle photo)

Karin Offield with her international dressage horse, Lingh. (Gabriele Boiselle photo)

Written by Judy Heinrich for
Life In Our Foothills Magazine

Sometimes the stars just align and something that doesn’t seem possible happens in spite of the odds. That’s certainly true of the story of trainer Harry deLeyer and his plow-horse-turned-champion, Snowman, and it was also a factor in the making of the “Harry and Snowman” documentary, recently featured at the Tryon International Film Festival (TIFF).

Most horsepeople know at least the basics of the Snowman story: an auction horse saved from slaughter became a very unlikely show horse in the 1950s and ultimately bested far more pampered and pedigreed equine athletes to win show jumping’s “Triple Crown” in 1958. Snowman and Harry became national celebrities, appearing in Life Magazine and on hit television shows of the day. Snowman even achieved the pinnacle of equine immortality, becoming a Breyer horse.

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If you were at the sold-out showing of “Harry & Snowman” on TIFF’s opening night, you know all of that and more: That Harry was a Dutch farm boy who lived through World War II and helped his father hide Jewish citizens in their barn and deliver them to the Allies. That Harry married and immigrated to the United States after the war, becoming a riding instructor at the posh Knox School in Long Island, New York, where his skills as a trainer, especially with Snowman, became apparent. That Snowman retired in 1962 and spent the rest of his life with the deLeyer family, while Harry went on to become one of the most successful riders and trainers in America. He now lives in Virginia and is still active at the age of 87.

TIFF was one of 24 independent film festivals to feature “Harry and Snowman,” and the production had won six “Best Documentary” or “Best of the Fest” honors at those events as this article was written. The film was also recently selected for inclusion at the American Film Market, an eight-day gathering of film industry leaders who converge for screenings, networking and deal-making. With luck, distribution rights for “Harry and Snowman” will be purchased and a much wider audience will have the chance to see it.

None of this would have been possible if one young rider hadn’t decided, nearly four decades ago, that the world needed a film about show jumping. About two-dozen people came to hear that rider – now the executive producer of “Harry and Snowman” – tell her story at the Tryon Fine Arts Center the morning after the TIFF showing.

“Harry and Snowman” … and Karin

Karin Reid Offield started riding as a child in Aspen, Colo. As a talented junior she traveled the country competing at top jumper and equitation shows, finishing among the top 10 at the AHSA Medal Finals in Harrisburg.

Karin later built and ran a ranch and youth program, returned to the show circuit at Wellington, even galloped racehorses. Because she was always interested in promoting her sport, she founded her own film production company, Equestrian Reels. One of her projects was a behind-the-scenes look at show jumping.

“We went to 13 amazing showgrounds and farms between 1978 and the early ‘80s, focusing on three of the top jumpers of the day. One of them happened to be Harry deLeyer, who was still a top competitor at 53,” Karin told her workshop audience.

Although the famous Snowman was retired by then, Karin had heard of him as a child and got Harry to tell her the story on film. That, combined with her then-current jumping footage of Harry, produced a time-capsule recounting of the man and his most famous mount.

Unfortunately, Karin says, “I eventually ran out of money and was trying to ride at the same time, trying out for the Olympics. I had a financial problem. I aimed to become an Olympic-level rider and I was a creative person, but not a college business major. I just couldn’t close the deal to get the movie done. So I decided to put the film on the shelf and let it sit.”

She put all of her raw footage – 40,000 feet – in a Manhattan film storage laboratory while she concentrated on her riding.

Eventually Karin married, time passed, and her husband encouraged her to try to finish her movie herself. She wrote to the storage laboratory to find out about getting the 16 mm film digitized and was surprised to get the letter back unopened. It turned out that the company had gone out of business and the film was gone; it was no longer in the building.

It was now the mid-’90s and she started calling some of the crew members who had worked for her over the years. While none of them knew where the film had ended up, one introduced her to a young woman that he thought could help her.

Amazingly, through two years of detective work, that woman was able to track down all the footage. It had ended up in six different states, having been confiscated, along with everything else, by multiple creditors of the storage company.

The next step was to examine all of the footage and determine how to put it back together. But simply getting it back didn’t mean that finishing the movie would be any easier. “Trying to find people to finish the film was going to be harder than making it in the first place,” Karin recalled.

During this time Karin was training with dressage great Robert Dover, and he introduced her to a friend of his, documentary filmmaker Ron Davis. When she told Ron about her movie, he helped her get it converted to digital and up to modern standards. But while he encouraged her to finish it, he said it wouldn’t be with him because he was too busy.

Then five years later Ron called to say he wanted to make a documentary about Harry and Snowman and felt like her footage could be a part of it. It wasn’t the film that Karin had initially envisioned but, she says, “We signed the papers right away. I knew it would be something amazing for the world of show jumping and the world of horses.”

“What Ron also brought to the project, with his experience in both the book industry and film-making, was an ability to take the two-to-three year event of Harry and Snowman winning at Madison Square Garden and expand it into the fuller story and a full-length documentary feature.”

With Karin signed on as executive producer they added material about Harry’s experiences during the war and his history of having rescued horses and other animals from a young age. The day after “Harry and Snowman” had its world premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (Durham), they also filmed at the same auction barn where Snowman had been bought by Harry, using that occasion to announce a Snowman Rescue Fund to benefit horse rescue (details at www.harryandsnowman.com).

When asked what fueled her decades-long attempt to create her film, Karin responded, “I think of it as the same kind of ‘try’ you need to ride in the Olympics. You keep working on something, you get better at it, and you find a way. And then when it all starts aligning… I’m a big believer in the stars aligning and things happening for a reason.”

While much of her original jumping footage was woven into “Harry and Snowman,” Karin says she still has a lot of it left: “Not all the footage we shot back then made it into ‘Snowman.’ Maybe it will still be produced at some point.”

“In the meantime, ‘Harry and Snowman’ is a not just a story about two characters, it’s about a time and place and industry that will surely continue and be relevant for generations to come. I couldn’t be happier to represent it.”

They Knew Them When

For the film festival showing, Libbie Johnson of Tryon contacted some lucky people from our area who had a personal connection to Snowman and Harry. Here are some of the memories they shared.

“I trained with Harry. My parents couldn’t afford a horse so Mr. D used to give me extra rides on school horses. I remember Harry’s daughter Anne Marie riding Snowman in Saturday morning lessons to give him exercise until he was too old and then just completely retired. I was also there on the day they put Snowman to sleep. I was sent up to his stall to get him but he would not budge. Mr. D walked up behind me and said something to Snowman and he walked out for the master he loved. Only the deLeyer family members were allowed in front of Snowman’s barn where they put him down and buried him in his front pasture at Hollandia Farm.”

— Nancy DiLorenzo

“I first met Harry and Snowman in 1959 when I was 11 years old and attending summer camp. Everyone at camp was talking about an amazing horse named Snowman. My father, who was an attorney, came home one day and said a man named Harry deLeyer had contacted him about a horse that had become a world champion. Movie producers wanted to make a movie about him. My father took me with him to Harry’s farm to have him sign some legal papers. I couldn’t believe it when Harry asked me if I wanted to sit on Snowman. He lifted me up, put me on Snowman and then put several of his children right up there with me. I was thrilled. When I went to camp the next day no one would believe my story. I didn’t wash my shorts so I could show everyone Snowman’s hair all over them.

During one visit to the farm, Harry bridled Snowman and then let me ride him in the pasture bareback. He told me to be careful not to face him toward a fence because he would just jump right over it. I will never forget that day! I was at Madison Square Garden when Snowman was retired. My dad and I continued to visit Harry at his new Hollandia Farm. After I was married I began riding and jumping with Harry as my trainer. It was a wonderful experience. Whenever I was at the farm I would stop to see Snowman out in the pasture enjoying his retirement.”

– Carol Berg Di Prima

“Harry had some of the most amazing school horses in the world. My favorite was Paleface, an excellent equine athlete who could jump a 3-to-4 foot course with a not very knowledgeable teenager hanging on for dear life, making whatever adjustments he needed to keep me on his back. Harry had a genius for knowing how far he could push each rider to do more than he or she thought they could do, with the help of his marvelous horses.  I arrived at Hollandia after Snowman retired and I know that he enjoyed his retirement very much because he was a friendly horse and seemed to relish the groups of children who came to visit him and the frequent stops at his centrally located pasture made by everyone who came by.”

– Melissa Ramirez Johnson

“I took lessons from Harry in the 1970s when I was hunting with the Smithtown Hunt and Harry was the Huntsman. Harry made you go over jumps at heights you would never dream of. Bravery just came naturally, you just jump, you didn’t refuse. I had a 14.1h Arab-cross and he had us easily jumping 3’6”. It was a wild and crazy time but it was so natural for Harry and his students. I met Snowman as an older horse in his stall and he seemed huge but kind, he had a big presence. You knew he was special.”

– Pat Schleuter

“I grew up around the deLeyer family and took lessons from Harry. As a kid seeing him and Snowman jump was really something. The coolest thing I saw the horse do was jump the brick wall, which was really wood, and was more than 7 feet tall. I lived in the house with the deLeyers for a time and remember all of us going out with Snowman. A few of us would get on his back, some of us would be on the pony cart, and Snowman would take us all down to the beach to dig clams. Harry also bred all his jumpers, then he’d stick the yearlings and the mamas in the back of a semi-truck and take them to West Virginia to be turned out for a year. Those babies were horses when they came back, and they were wild as a buck.”

– Brian Kerr