Man Saves Horse From Grim End, Then Uncovers Its Potential And Makes History
By James Cannon
When Harry de Leyer turned up at a horse auction later than planned, there wasn’t much choice left. All that remained were the animals set for the slaughterhouse. As he scanned the line-up, though, a beautiful gray horse caught his eye. De Leyer wasted no time putting the money down for him. But no one could’ve predicted what would happen next.
Meeting de Leyer
If ever there was a true story fit for the big screen, it’s this one. It’s pretty amazing! Henricus de Leyer, better known as Harry, was welcomed into the world back in 1927. He spent his formative years in the Netherlands’ town of Sint-Oedenrode, and soon became the older brother to 11 siblings. Talk about a crowded household.
The horse connection
As time went on, de Leyer took on the responsibility of helping his folks at their farm. Yet this wasn’t just any old ranch — horses were its primary focus. So, the young man got a good feel for the animals at a fairly early age. Then, after becoming more comfortable around them, he decided to try his hand at show jumping.
De Leyer was forming an undeniable bond with the animals that only grew as he got older. The guy loved horses! But sadly, everything changed as the 1930s came to a close. At that point, World War II erupted in Europe, and it didn’t take long until the Netherlands was occupied by Germany. The invasion began in May 1940.
The Germans remained in control for the next five years, in what was a truly nightmarish period in Dutch history. De Leyer’s will didn’t break, though. In fact, he decided to step up in a major way while the horrors of the occupation devastated his homeland. Yep, despite his relatively young age, the Sint-Oedenrode resident joined the resistance movement.
After that, de Leyer did all he could to aid and assist the Jewish citizens who were being hunted by the Nazis. Apparently, plenty of folks benefited from his brave, selfless actions at the time. Anyway, as the war raged on, he frequently took out one of the family horses to search for any downed Allied pilots. One such journey led him to a gravely injured U.S. airman.
A pivotal moment
Unfortunately, the American pilot succumbed to his injuries at the de Leyer farm not long after his arrival. He was laid to rest on the property, while the Dutch family kept hold of his dog tags. Eventually, they were mailed back to the airman’s folks, who lived in North Carolina. To say the pair were appreciative would be a major understatement.
Yes, the pilot’s mom and dad opened up a line of communication with the de Leyers, and remained in touch long after the war ended. Most of the chats involved Harry, who soon had a wife by his side. Her name was Johanna. So, keeping that in mind, let’s jump ahead to 1950 now. At that point, the Dutch duo fancied a change in scenery.
An incredible gesture
Specifically, the de Leyers were eyeing up a possible switch to America. But would the couple be able to do it? Well, the pilot’s folks did all they could to ensure the move happened. The mom and dad “sponsored” their son’s rescuer, and it did the trick. The doors were now open for them to immigrate from the Netherlands. What an amazing gesture!
The perfect job
De Leyer and his wife soon touched down in America, ready to begin their new lives. To make ends meet, he took on a very attractive position at The Knox School, which can be found in Long Island, New York. The facility was looking for a new horse-riding teacher. His eyes must’ve lit up after seeing that job posting!
Back to the auction...
So de Leyer got to work in Long Island, helping the kids get to grips with the horses. He certainly had the experience to guide them through it. Meanwhile, the Dutch instructor was also charged with bringing new animals to the school every so often. On that note, it’s time to head back to that pivotal auction we described earlier.
Stopped in his tracks
It took place in February 1956 in Pennsylvania. Quite the journey from Long Island, right? On the way there, though, de Leyer blew out one of his car’s tires, so he needed to pull over for a spell. After it got fixed, the horse-riding teacher returned to the road and tried to reach the auction as quickly as possible. We can only imagine his stress!
“I’ll give him a chance”
When de Leyer finally pulled in, the auction was finished. But luckily, this wouldn’t be a wasted trip. As we noted before, he did spot a horse from the remaining group. Speaking to the CNN website in November 2016, he recalled, “I needed a quiet horse for the beginners. I remember seeing his eyes and thinking, ‘This one seems nice and quiet, I’ll give him a chance.’”
Negotiating a fee
So, de Leyer went to speak with the people in charge of the event and revealed his interest in the gray horse. After a bit of negotiation, he agreed to hand over $80 to buy him. Remember, that’s 1956 money — today, that total would be the equivalent of roughly $750! Regardless of the price, though, the instructor’s decision to pay it saved the animal from the slaughterhouse.
The horse was eight years old at the time, and had previously been plowing fields in an Amish community. But a very different life awaited him now. After the animal was taken back to Long Island from the auction, de Leyer’s young daughter named him Snowman. Everyone at the house, and the students at school, seemed to fall in love with the beautiful beast.
“A very special horse”
Looking back at that time, de Leyer continued his conversation with CNN. The rider beamed, “[Snowman] was a very special horse. He just had a special temperament. He was always good, he always tried to please, he pleased me the most.” There was a bit more to the horse than that, though. As it turned out, he boasted a hidden talent.
Moment of truth
It all came to light when de Leyer decided to sell Snowman to his next-door neighbor. The guy had a field to plow, and the gray horse seemed like the perfect candidate. Once the pair came to an arrangement, the Dutchman made a profit of $80. Not bad, right? Yet the animal refused to stay put at his new home.
“Kept on coming back!”
De Leyer continued, “I sold [Snowman] once but the bugger kept on coming back! He kept on turning up at my barn and I joked to the guy that clearly he didn’t want to be sold. So he suggested [that] Snowman boarded with me. Two months in he’d never paid me a penny, so he just told me to keep the horse.”
But how did Snowman keep coming back to de Leyer’s place? Well, the horse had a tremendous leap, allowing him to traverse the large barricades between the houses. Once the instructor figured that out, old memories started to flood back from his show jumping days in the Netherlands. Could this be his chance to make a dramatic return to the sport?
Rising up the rankings
De Leyer soon put Snowman’s skills to the test, trying him out with some four-foot fences first. The horse cleared them with ease, and after spending a bit more time together, he and his owner started to enter show jumping competitions. The unlikely duo proved to be a formidable force, with each success bumping them up the national rankings. It was incredible to watch.
Winning the “Triple Crown”
Somehow, this plow horse was outperforming the best the sport had to offer. And it all culminated in an amazing year in 1958. With de Leyer by his side, Snowman took home the show jumping “Triple Crown.” That included the Professional Horseman’s Association Championship, The American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year, and Champion of Madison Square Garden’s Diamond Jubilee.
“He was a superstar”
“I never thought [Snowman would] be a champion at Madison Square Garden,” de Leyer admitted to CNN. “The crowd just loved him. He was the very cheapest of horses doing the absolutely impossible. After Madison Square Garden, he was a superstar, everybody knew about him.” That’s not an exaggeration, either. The New York Times wrote about his success, while TV came calling, too.
Meeting Johnny Carson
Yep, Snowman was invited to appear on both To Tell the Truth, which was a game show, and The Tonight Show. During his time on the latter program, he had a humorous encounter with Johnny Carson, who tried to sit on the horse backwards. According to de Leyer, though, his equine pal wasn’t fazed in the slightest. He took everything in his giant stride.
“Didn’t mind where he was”
De Leyer noted, “Snowman didn’t think anything of Johnny Carson getting a step ladder and sitting back to front on him. On TV, around children, he didn’t mind where he was. As for me, I just went along with it. I was just a boy with muddy shoes. I think I’ve still got them.” Anyway, all the additional attention didn’t seem to have an adverse effect on their show jumping performances.
For instance, Snowman further cemented his name in the history books by securing the Open Jumper Championship in 1959. He’d won it the previous year as well — no other horse had taken home back-to-back titles at that event before. Due to his remarkable displays, the animal was eventually dubbed “The Cinderella Horse.” As far as nicknames go, that’s a good one!
But much like Cinderella’s time at the ball, Snowman’s show jumping days wouldn’t last forever. After a few glorious years in the spotlight, he bowed out in 1962 with a raft of honors and titles. At that stage, the horse then returned to de Leyer’s property and lived a blissful retirement. The animal certainly earned it! Twelve years later, though, some sad news emerged.
As a result of kidney issues, Snowman was put to sleep in 1974. The legendary horse was 26 years old. And thanks to the impact he made on the sport, he received further honors in the years after his death. De Leyer’s partner entered the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992, before the Equus Foundation Horse Stars Hall of Fame welcomed him in 2015.
A bestselling book and a documentary
On top of that, Snowman and de Leyer’s wonderful story was also recounted in a book by author Elizabeth Letts in 2011. Its title? The Eighty Dollar Champion. Following its publication, the book went on to reach The New York Times’ bestseller list. Oh, and a documentary about the pair dropped in 2016 as well. It’s simply called Harry & Snowman.
“A bond that’s still there”
Touching on the story in November 2016, Letts told CNN, “I came across it by accident really. It’s a remarkable story of a last-minute buy, and then the bond of two survivors having both gone through very tough times and a horse that inspired a nation. It’s a bond that’s still there, and you can see the tears welling up in Harry’s eyes when he still talks about Snowman.”
“My best friend”
Speaking of de Leyer, it seems only fitting to give him the final word. He added, “I felt happy every day that [Snowman] was in my life. He’s always still with me, he’ll stay in my mind my whole life and I still think of him every day. He was my best friend.” Following an equally storied life, Snowman’s owner passed away in June 2021. He was 93 years old.
A bond like no other
Though he wouldn't live to see it, it would hardly be a surprise to know that de Leyer would have been tickled to know that the special bond between humans and horses isn't only unique to him and Snowman. During an ordinary camping trip, horse owner, Shane was woken up to the sound of rustling. The commotion didn’t worry him at first, but when he opened up his tent, he saw his horse, Mongo, galloping after a group of wild mustangs. Mongo disappeared over the horizon, and Shane’s world fell away.
Utah man Shane Adams had thought the world of his horse Mongo until they were separated during that fateful camping trip. In the months and years that followed Shane had done his best to find the lost mount, but his efforts all ended in failure and eventually he feared the worst. Imagine Shane’s surprise when a miracle happened eight years later — Mongo was discovered living in the wild, and now he was coming home.
The reunion would be a nerve-wracking one for Shane. A lot had happened since Mongo’s disappearance and his horse had lived a completely different lifestyle. It could only have made Shane wonder: what had become of Mongo? Was he even the same horse Shane knew before his disappearance, or would he have forgotten domesticated life with his human entirely?
Some people say that a dog is a man’s best friend, but Shane would probably argue that Mongo makes a great case for the bond between man and horse. Equines have always been present in horse-trainer Shane’s life — he grew up around them, after all — but none of them had captured his heart quite as much as his beloved half-Quarter and half-Percheron steed.
In 2022 Shane told newspaper The Washington Post that Mongo’s personality was “goofy.” The gentle horse also loved treats, specifically Sour Patch Kids candy. Mongo must have enjoyed plenty of them during his time with Shane, too! The pair often spent the weekends camping in the desert plains of northwestern Utah. Unfortunately, that’s also where Shane and Mongo had unexpectedly gone their separate ways.
The fateful camping trip took place in March 2014 and when subtle noises disturbed Shane’s rest in the early hours, he left his tent to investigate. What Shane saw turned his world upside down: a herd of wild mustang took off, galloping across the plains. He couldn’t mistake the familiar shape in their midst: it was Mongo.
Out of sight
Shane had panicked and rushed to get dressed so he could give chase. “I ran after him and I tried driving,” he told The Washington Post, “but I really couldn’t get anywhere because of the snow.” But even after Mongo had gone out of sight, Shane believed it was temporary. In 2022 he told Fox News, "I thought he’d just come right back.”
Shane continued, “That was his mentality — he never went far. I didn’t think he would ever be gone.” He also informed The Washington Post, “I reported him missing and tried every person I could to find him.” Shane’s father would join him on those regular hunts for the missing horse, but their efforts were in vain. Little did Shane know that Mongo’s departure would only be the beginning of his misfortune.
Needle in a haystack
But what could Shane do about one missing horse among all the horses in the wilderness? To say the odds of recovering Mongo were against him is an understatement. The vastness of the terrain alone made locating the steed akin to hunting for a needle in a haystack. The search area spans almost 2.4 million acres after all and that’s not to mention the prolific wild horse population.
Call of the wild
You see, many horses ran away from their rancher- and settler-owners in the 1800s to heed the call of wild Utah. They bred and it was their descendants that Mongo joined in 2014. These days there are approximately 22 wild herds — that’s about 71,000 horses — roaming the plains and Mongo could have been among any of them. In fact, occasionally the herds over-breed.
Too many wild horses can damage the ecosystem, but they are all safe thanks to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act of 1971. Wild herds are considered “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) moves horses around to areas that can support them, so at least Mongo wasn’t in danger of getting culled.
Speaking of the BLM, it was one of the organizations Shane had contacted to help watch for Mongo. He told The Washington Post, “I went back [to the campsite] every weekend for three years to see if he was there… but I never saw Mongo again.” Eventually, Shane returned to work as a construction site foreman, so he had to limit the search. Things went downhill for him from there.
Mongo’s disappearance seemed to herald a series of misfortunes for poor Shane. Despite having a good job, other aspects of his life spiraled. His marriage dissolved and he lost ownership of his house. Among all of that, Shane still hadn’t heard anything of Mongo, and it had looked less and less likely the horse would ever be found. Actually, both Shane and BLM feared the worst.
BLM Utah’s public affairs specialist Lisa Reid told Fox News, “Since we didn’t capture [Mongo] in 2017 we did not know what had happened. We thought maybe he was gone.” Shane still hadn’t experienced what is arguably the worst of his bad luck, though. That happened a few years later in 2021 and it wasn’t horse-related. He was on the road when tragedy struck.
Shane’s vehicle was involved in a traffic collision and a very serious one at that. Paramedics rushed him into hospital, where doctors discovered he had suffered a life-threatening brain injury. It left Shane disabled, and he had to learn how to walk again. Experts said the odds were against him returning to work; riding a horse again was equally unlikely.
The doctors said if Shane did recover enough to go back to his passion, it would be a long way down the road. “They said it’ll be probably like five years before I could think of getting on a horse,” he told The Washington Post. The blows kept coming when Shane’s father, the man who had faithfully aided his search for Mongo, sadly passed away. “My dad went out looking with me every time,” he informed Fox News.
Although the Adams family considered Mongo gone, his memory still remained in the household. Shane’s son, who was two when the horse had disappeared, grew up surrounded by pictures of the animal. He would even make up songs about how Mongo had run away! The incident had become near-legendary and not just in the family. There were people among the BLM who also recalled how Mongo went missing.
But in September 2022 BLM discovered something strange. Remember how we said it sometimes has to relocate herds when they overwhelm the environment? Well, the organization was given permission to carry out an extended gathering of horses on a protected region called Dugway Proving Ground. One of the horses behaved extremely unusually for a wild animal. Could it be an escaped domesticated steed?
No ordinary horse
The strange horse was certainly bigger than the wild members of the herd, although that didn’t prove anything by itself. But as the horse specialist watched the strange stallion closely their suspicions deepened. The horse’s actions all but confirmed that it was no ordinary wild specimen when it reached the trap site. Its behavior was so out of the ordinary, it had to be special… didn’t it?
Fight or flight
Most wild horses will go into fight-or-flight mode when they realize they’re trapped and either thrash around or try to escape. This one didn’t do either of those things and seemed to settle into its situation comfortably, as if it was familiar with domestication. How many tamed horses are among the wild herds of Utah? There was one way to find out the truth.
BLM consulted a local brand inspector to see if they could identify the horse. And sure enough, underneath a large growth of winter fur, they found a mark. The horse was a confirmed domesticated one and what’s more, they realized to whom the stallion belonged. Even though the horse specialist could remember the story when it broke, they still couldn’t believe it: the horse was Mongo.
So Shane’s luck was about to take another turn. A BLM Utah worker sent him a Facebook message telling him that not only was Mongo very much alive, but they’d found him too. He was coming home. “‘[I thought], ‘There is no way. You have got to be kidding me,’” Shane said.
Questions must have been swirling through Shane’s head. How had BLM found Mongo? What would he be like, having spent so long with wild mustangs running across the vast Utah plains? Such trepidation would be understandable, considering the circumstances. The foreman didn’t know whether his horse would even recognize him. It had been eight years after all and they’d lived very different lives.
All the same, Shane headed out to meet his long-lost horse the following day. And it wasn’t a short drive, either: it took him four hours to reach Mongo. When they finally saw each other again, the horse did indeed look different. Mongo’s large frame had downsized from his time in the wild and he was at least 400 pounds lighter. Did Shane look different to Mongo, too?
“There’s not a lot of food out there with this drought,” Shane elaborated to The Washington Post, “and the horses look like walking death because they’re so skinny.” He wondered how quickly Mongo would adapt back to his old life, if at all. As he approached, he couldn’t help but fear that the wilderness had made his old friend timid and frightened of people.
Yet Shane didn’t have anything to worry about. “He was his calm, mellow and normal self — like he had never left at all,” Shane concluded. “But I was overjoyed. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a dream come true.” It seemed that Mongo remembered everything, including the trailer Shane had transported him in. Mongo walked straight into it as if he’d been doing it for the past eight years.
There had been a horse-shaped hole in Shane’s life since Mongo left and the whole Adams household had felt his absence in one way or another. He is back now though, and Shane’s children have finally properly met the legendary horse that has had such an influence on their life. Things have started getting back on track for the Adams family and Shane’s doing better, too.
Back in the saddle
Remember what Shane’s doctors had said about his horse-riding limitations? “I’ve already proved them wrong on that,” he said. Yep it’s true, he’s been riding again, although he’s taking it very steady. Shane’s staying off Mongo’s saddle for now and walking him with his eight-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son as a family activity instead. The kids even have their own ponies!
As for Mongo, he’s also enjoying making up for lost time with his family. And now that he’s back with humans again they’re showering him with his beloved Sour Patch Kids candy treats. After losing so much weight in the wild, the Adams family are trying to get Mongo back to a healthy weight. Shane revealed, “I’m happy we can take care of him now and make sure he eats enough food.”
Shane told Fox News, “This was really good, the only positive thing to happen to me in two years.” He also informed The Washington Post, “Now I’m a firm believer that you have to look past your trials and trust that things are going to get better. Everything happens, but you’ve got to keep your chin up. I mean, a month ago I would’ve never imagined Mongo would be back.”