Ballad of The Eighty Dollar Champion
May 1, 2012
Jan saw this sign in a catalog the other day: “I want to be the man my horse thinks I am.” A very, very, worthy ambition.
This true story of a horse named Snowman was recommended by friends Trice and Pat Lawrence and Terry Mathews. I probably would not have read it without their suggestion because I knew nothing about show jumping (I know quite a bit now).
This book, however, is about more than an equestrian event that a lot of us think is the province of the elite. It’s about triumph over adversity against all odds. It’s about the unique and unusual bond that can be formed between man and animal.
I knew I was in for a treat when author Elizabeth Letts painted a vivid image of a dirty, flea-bitten nag looking through the board slats of a truck bound for the slaughter house at a man with only eighty dollars in his pocket—a man who needed a horse to train students to ride and jump horses at an all-girls school. The horse and man saw something in each other’s eyes.
Sound overdone? Romanticized? Too sentimental? By the time I reached the part where Snowman shows up in his former owner’s yard dragging an old tire and a piece of board fence, I was hooked on this story and this horse.
Maybe it’s because my grandfather’s horse returned in a similar fashion. I’ll never forget the day he came back more than a month after being sold and taken more than a hundred miles away. But that’s another story. That was Buddy. This is about Snowman.
I have always been fascinated by theories about an animal’s ability to reason and to love their human masters. I am still just a wannabe cowboy, but I was raised around horses and there have been only short periods in my life when I did not own at least one (I still own one today).
As a boy, I remember trying to connect with my horse the way that Gene Autry connected with Champion, but I just didn’t know how to train my little mare to do all those tricks. I thought it was her fault, but it was mine, of course.
Then there was the time I was summarily stopped and thoroughly chastised by my father when he caught me trying to teach her to rear (we called it rare-up) on her hind legs.
Most of the stories we hear about humans bonding with animals have been romanticized to the point of becoming pure fiction. Letts is careful not to do that. By sticking to the facts and careful detail of how this relationship develops, readers can believe in something that we all want to believe (and most of us want to achieve).
It is one of the ironies of life (at least mine) that we often learn how things should be done after it is too late (or we are too old). Also, I find it fascinating that we all have aha moments when we are trying to master a skill, a subject, or a relationship—those moments when we read or hear the exact words that explain something that has been confusing before.
Even the best of teachers don’t always speak to all students. Some of us listen and absorb in different ways. I have had many aha moments with horses.
One was when I read that a woman’s heart rate will match a horse’s within sixty seconds after putting a hand on the horse. That simple revelation spoke volumes to me.
I discovered by trial and error that my horse Rowdy would do just about what I expected of him. If I expected bad behavior when we team-roped, I got it and vice-versa. Even though there were many hits and misses, the discovery came in an “aha!” moment.
I concluded at first that the horse was just reacting to my physical movements—the way I sat in the saddle, the way my legs relaxed or tensed, the way my hands held the reins. However, I came to believe that it was also a mental thing.
When you ride and train a horse almost every day, he learns your moods, can read the expression on your face, and can correctly analyze every gesture. People generally know that about dogs and smaller pets, but not so much about horses. I now think that animals communicate on a much higher mental and emotional level than I first thought.
I have been to a lot of horse training clinics and watched a lot of videos where the trainer tries to get this point across. But few ever come right out and say how they are communicating on a silent, mental level with the horse in addition to sounds and physical movements.
Some are just not articulate enough, but most are doing something that comes natural to them. Or maybe they figure that nobody would believe them. This mental connection can be learned by most. Snowman proves the point.
Although the bonding between Harry le Feyer and Snowman develops through trial and error, failure and success, this is not a clinical description of training. There is definitely something intangible working between Snowman and Harry (a mental, emotional thing).
A survivor of Nazi-occupied Holland of WWII, this immigrant farmer, husband and father has a background that also makes the story more believable and more emotional. The pair develops what we all want to feel and share. You will soar inside the head of Harry and Snowman as well as over the jumps as they achieve the near-impossible.