The lines are growing more blurred now, but when I was getting started, back in the early nineties, there were clearly drawn lines about which disciplines were for which income class. The country club girls were pigtailing it up in the hunter/jumpers shows. The back-road backyard-horse girls had 4-H and barrel racing to keep them busy.
I was solidly in the middle, and I felt myself pulled in two directions. I eventually stumbled upon eventing, which at the time was still relatively affordable, and found that as long as you were totally okay with color-coding everything you owned with electrical tape, you were considered fashionable enough. I found multi-colored electrical tape enchanting, and the premise that it was necessary to tape your bridle parts together for the cross-country ride in case the bridle broke over a particularly violent jump absolutely irresistible.
I never felt like I could break into the privileged world of those fashionable hunter/jumper shows. I wouldn’t have the right jacket. I wouldn’t have the right saddle. I wouldn’t have the right trainer. It might not have been so desperate as that, but those are just the impressions of a suburban girl growing up in Florida. In the first half of the twentieth century, class divisions in the show ring were not just an opinion, they were a fact of life.
And if you didn’t enter plowhorses of dubious ancestry into the National Horse Show, the playground of the rich and fabulous, you certainly didn’t do it as a down-at-the-heels riding instructor who emigrated from the Netherlands.
My dears, it simply wasn’t done.
Imagine showing with people like this:
In the stands, Vanderbilts mingled with foreign ambassadors and high-ranking government officials, chatting the distinctive tight-lipped upper-class accent made famous by Franklin Roosevelt, known as “Locust Valley lockjaw.” Perhaps this was what Fitzgerald meant when he said of Daisy Buchanan that “her voice was full of money.”
Into this mix of blue-blooded humans and horses rode Harry de Leyer, mounted on a plow-horse that slept at the in-gate and who could jump the moon.
He had more courage than I can imagine.
The Eighty-Dollar Champion is about confronting that class warfare head-on, and blowing right through the lines drawn between who was good enough for the show ring and who was not. It’s the story of that down-at-the-heels riding instructor, a Dutch horseman named Harry de Leyer who started out in the United States as a sharecropper, of all things, and spent his life trying to climb back to the success and status he’d known as a horseman in pre-war Europe.
de Leyer accomplished what all of us poor horsemen would do unspeakable things for: he picked up a vaguely interesting horse from a kill-buyer for eighty bucks and found that he had a freak on his hands.
Snowman was the very best sort of freak. Like Dan Patch, the Standardbred who paced not only at blinding speeds but naturally, without hobbles, Snowman was an athlete with bizarre powers far beyond his breeding and build, and certainly without any connection to his temperament. de Leyer tried to sell the horse as a kid’s pony, but the horse wouldn’t be sold: he just kept jumping fences and coming home. Stuck with a horse that seemed bomb-proof and boring, de Leyer put the gelding in his string of lesson horses, but the privileged young ladies of the finishing school where he taught were embarrassed to ride him.
Eventually, de Leyer would find a way to take the horse to the pinnacle of American show-jumping. It’s a beautiful story, and in the meantime, author Elizabeth Letts paints a fascinating picture of mid-century equestrian sports in North America. I was especially taken with the descriptions of the old Madison Square Garden venue for the National Horse Show, especially this passage on the stabling in 1958:
For all the glory upstairs in the Garden, the basement was a sorry excuse for a stabling area. The ventilation was famously poor, and made worse by people who ignored the no-smoking rule. Horses were prone to respiratory infections, which spread like wildfire in the enclosed space. Grooms from the Mexican team cooked in their stalls, filling the aisles with the odors of sizzling tortillas. In order to allow a horse to stretch his legs, you had to walk him up on the street.
But above that cramped basement stable, the great horsemen of the twentieth century were showing their horses. Frank Chapot, George Morris, William Steinkraus. For horsemen like us, they remain household names. Harry de Leyer took his plow-horse and beat them all.
The Eighty Dollar Champion is both an inspiring portrait of a talented horseman and a horse who loved him, and an exhaustively researched portrait of the early days of horse showing in America. It is an utterly fascinating look at the days before approved hard hats, when Presidents attended horse shows and the National Horse Show was the height of New York’s social season. It is, in short, a must-read.
The Eighty-Dollar Champion is available from your local bookseller. Find them here!