Everybody loves an underdog. Erin McCabe reviews this true story of a slaughterbound plowhorse-turned-showjumping champion who captured the heart of Cold War-era America.
The Price of Inspiration
After reading The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts, I’m feeling like it was pretty much a grievous mistake on my part that I haven’t packed up the horse trailer and begun my trek across the country to compete at Rolex Kentucky with my string of Zero-Dollar Champions. Which is to say, dang, the story of the formerly slaughter-bound ex-plowhorse Snowman and his rescuer Harry de Leyer is inspiring.
It is only thanks to some prodding from a couple HorseNation BookWorms (Sara the Librarian and Kathy, to be precise) that I even decided to give the book a try, because, to be honest, I really much prefer reading fiction to non-fiction, and I also kind of maybe thought the book was just riding on Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit coattails, especially with the subtitle, which is: “SNOWMAN, the Horse That Inspired a Nation.” But of course, now Snowman has inspired me, so I kind of have to admit that there is truth to the claim.
If you’re anything like me, you have heard the names Snowman and the Flying Dutchman at some point in your life. Maybe if you were young enough and/or horseless enough in 2005, you are also lucky enough to own your own Breyer model of Snowman, which the rest of us will now have to try to snatch up on eBay here or pay exorbitant sums for here, if it just happens to be in stock ever again (also: does it strike anyone else as odd that the plastic model costs more than the real deal? I digress…) because after reading the book, if you aren’t hopelessly in love with Snowman, then, well… I just don’t even know how that’s possible.
As for the book, I was hooked by the first chapter. It’s immediately clear that Letts knows and understands horses, and throughout the book she writes yummy passages like this: “The sport of jumping is like no other. Man and horse, as they hurtle toward towering fences higher than a horse’s shoulders, speak to each other in the language of feel, a deep-seated connection beyond words, beyond specific cues. A great rider tunes in to his horse so deeply that he hears only with a sense of touch, and sees only through a sense of feel. On any given round, the horse’s heartbeat melds with his own, the hoofbeats becoming his own rhythm. The world around them melts away. All that remains is motion, flow, silence, and that incomparable feeling that is flight.” Yes, please! And even though this is non-fiction, it is definitely character and plot driven (which is kind of necessary for fiction loving me). It doesn’t even really matter that we know the final outcome from the outset because the fact that the characters don’t works to give the story momentum.
I probably would have been happy with just reading the story of Snowman and Harry, but Letts uses the typical non-fiction strategy of alternating between their story and historical information that gives readers more context. These intercalary chapters revolve mostly around the aftermath of World War II (particularly fascinating to me was the information about the military ReMount program. Now, instead of lamenting that there’s no National Stud in the U.S. like there is in England and Ireland, I can lament the fact that there was and it is no more) and the culture of our Horse Nation during the ’50s and ’60s. All this ultimately serves to make what Snowman and Harry achieved even more meaningful. And then there are the photos. Photos are one thing that non-fiction has got on fiction. I loved seeing Snowman swimming with three of Harry’s kids on his back, or Snowman jumping another horse or a ridiculously high fence or wearing his retirement cooler or…. You get the idea. But, wait! There’s also a few jewels such as the photos of what Letts refers to as “the Glamour Boys,” AKA the USET, AKA George Morris, Bill Steinkraus, and Frank Chapot. Even more interesting is that they are essentially the bad guys, not because they want us to ride all the time without stirrups, but because them losing equals Snowman and Harry winning.
My biggest complaint about the book, however, is that it gets a bit repetitious at times. I’m totally willing to skim/suffer through explanations of the difference between hunters and jumpers, but do I really have to suffer through the same basic explanation in consecutive chapters?! C’mon non-horse people! Get with the program! But it wasn’t just the explanations. I noticed similar repetition in descriptions of Snowman and Harry’s rides in their various Championship classes and in the way Letts wanted to hammer readers with the themes of privilege vs. hard work, tradition vs. change over and over. Don’t get me wrong, I totally bought what she was selling, it’s just that I bought it the first time she told me that Harry achieved his version of the American Dream through hard work and that his success was a harbinger of the changes occurring within the horse culture. If these themes are going to keep coming up, I would prefer that she dug a little deeper each time and made stronger connections between these themes and those of heart/courage/bottom and loyalty/devotion instead of just rehashing the same basic idea.
Ultimately, if I were going to host a match race/jump-off between the Seabiscuit and Snowman books, I think Seabiscuit would win as the better written book. But winning isn’t everything, as Letts reminds us through Snowman and Harry’s story. Doing your best is the most important thing, and in this case, it still results in a very enjoyable book.
P.S. But sometimes videos are fun too. Here’s some clips of Snowman and Harry, doing their thing. Go jump something!
Top photo: Horse-Books-Pony-Stories.com.
Editor’s Note: HN does not condone reading while riding bareback backwards without a bridle or helmet.