Lessons from “The Eighty-Dollar Champion”

Eighty-Dollar-Champ

Recently I read the book The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts. I originally saw the book awhile back when it first came out and meant to pick it up soon after, but forgot about it. A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around in the clearance section of BAM and saw the book for $5.00 and picked it up. I’m a sucker for books with horses on the front! Old habits die hard…

The book is based on a true-story of the National Horse Show Champion Show Jumper named Snowman. Snowman was an old plow horse that was rescued by the Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer for $80 from the slaughterhouse truck at an auction. Harry brought the horse back to his small farm on Long Island to be used as a lesson horse at the girls boarding school where he taught riding lessons.

Snowman was a gentle-giant. He wasn’t the thoroughbred Harry was looking for to be a solid show jumper. He made a good lesson horse and Harry was able to make a few dollars off of him when he sold Snowman to a neighbor. However, Snowman had other ideas. During lessons Snowman had no potential as a jumper. He would hit his hooves off poles on the ground. But, much to Harry’s surprise, he would find Snowman back in his stall the next morning with a fence board in tow. Snowman could jump.

Harry re-purchased Snowman and put the gelding into training. The horse could fly. Harry would bring him to all the big shows on Long Island during the summer where the wealthy showed their expensive thoroughbreds. Snowman and Harry would be laughed at until he won against some of the top horses on the East Coast. Show after show Harry and Snowman brought home the blue ribbon qualifying themselves to compete at the National Horse Show held at Madison Square Garden in November. Snowman was the underdog. No one expected him to win against the top horses in the world in show jumping, where the fences often reached over 5’6″ high!

It was 1958. America was in the midst of the Cold War. Snowman won the title that year and in turn inspired a nation. He was deemed the Cinderella Horse. He won again the following year. Snowman and Harry de Leyer changed the sport of Show Jumping for the United States and succeed in inspiring the “common people” that anything is possible.

The story begins with the quote by Christopher Reeve:

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”

Lesson One: Nothing is impossible

Snowman was a plow horse. He did not have the fancy, expensive blood-lines of a champion Thoroughbred, but the horse had heart. Harry was able to see the potential in the little horse that jumped pasture fences for fun. The rich elite that ruled the Equestrian lifestyle during the 1940s and 50s laughed at Snowman at shows. However, Harry and Snowman showed the world that with a little heart and faith, anything is possible. 

Lesson Two: There is something extraordinary in all of us

One of my favorite quotes in the book is “Snowman and Harry showed the world how extraordinary the most ordinary among us can be. Never give up, even when the obstacles seem sky-high. There is something extraordinary in all of us” (page 280). Snowman was an ordinary horse with an extraordinary talent. The story of Snowman teaches us that even though most of us consider ourselves to be average, there is always something extraordinary in all of us. Perhaps it’s our ability to sing, or play a sport, or even to care for others. Find that extraordinary quality in yourself and own it.

Lesson Three: Hard work trumps everything

One of the main reasons Snowman became a champion was Harry’s hard work and dedication to his horse, his family, and to the sport of show jumping. Harry recognized something in Snowman, but his talent and skill was only able to appear after Harry put in a lot of hard work. Harry had to teach the horse how to be ridden first before he could even become a jumper. During the National Horse Show the other horse farms had hired grooms, riders, etc to care for the horses, but Harry only had himself and his family to clean and braid Snowman for the show. Hard work really does make a difference and can get you far in life. Money can only buy so much.

It’s not every day that a champion is born. But, nothing is impossible. We each have a unique gift that with a little hard work can shine though. Harry de Leyer and Snowman showed the world this during the 1950s. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it if you’re looking for a fun read.

~ Happy Training!

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