I know this topic has been covered before — Behind the Bit did a posted on this several months ago — but tonight I came across some amazing photos of the diving horses of Atlantic City in the Life Magazine collection on Google. It is such a mind-boggling stunt that I still find it difficult to believe that this was a regular attraction for more than 50 years. I can’t resist adding to the other posts out there.
I grew up making regular visits to the Jersey shore, and although I never got to see the horses dive (there were diving horses on Steel Pier from the mid 1920s to 1978!), they were a legend. The act was created by Dr. W.F. Carver who was riding across a bridge in 1924 when it collapsed, sending him and his horse 40 feet into a river. The horse executed a dive and the two swam safely to shore. He created the act to replicate this feat.
In the Atlantic City shows horse and rider plunged 60 feet into a special tank (eventually the platform was lowered to 40 feet then 35 feet). Sonora Carver, the most famous of the riders (and Dr. Carver’s daughter-in-law) always stated that the horses were not forced to jump under duress. This reminiscence was published by Susan MacDonald in her story, Christmas Essay: The Diving Horses of Atlantic City.
“The High Diving Horses were always my favorite. I must have seen at least six of them over the years. They each had their own style of diving. One would wait a good five minutes before jumping – he would hold his head up and watch the seagulls fly by. Some dove with their front legs straight out, while others tucked up their legs as if they were going over a jump. One horse would twist in the air and land on his side, making it dangerous for his rider.”
“The riders (all women) would suffer one or two broken bones a year. Most of the injuries came from getting out of the pool of paddling hooves. They made it look easy, but it wasn’t. Years ago a rider by the name of Sonora Carver (in the late 1920’s) went blind from a bad impact with the water. The jump was sixty feet at that time, but was then lowered to forty.”
“Another horse, I think his name was Patches, drew quite an audience. After making so many jumps he no longer waited for his rider. He would charge up the ramp to the tower and take a running jump off the diving board, leaving the rider behind. A couple of the girls tried to leap on him as he flew by, only to be left sailing through the air mount-less. One day, he got up so much speed he almost overshot the pool. Needless to say, they retired him. One year they even had a high diving mule.”
An article in the New York Times featured an interview with Arnette Webster, Sonora’s younger sister, who also participated in the act. It gives some additional insights:
Arnette was 15 when she took her first plunge on a horse. ”What impressed me was how Dr. Carver cared for the horses,” she said. ”Wherever we went, the S.P.C.A. was always snooping around, trying to find if we were doing anything that was cruel to animals. They never found anything because those horses lived the life of Riley. In all the years of the act, there was never a horse that was injured.”
The challenge for the riders, Mrs. French explained, was to remember ”to keep your head tucked down to one side, so that when the horse raised his head as he jumped up at the bottom of the pool, you wouldn’t get smacked in the face.”
It is clear that her sister’s loss of sight from detached retinas was due to one bad blow or a number of blows, yet Mrs. French chooses to dwell on the joy of diving.
”The movie made a big deal about having the courage to go on riding after she lost her sight,” she said. ”But, the truth was, riding the horse was the most fun you could have and we just loved it so. We didn’t want to give it up. Once you were on the horse, there really wasn’t much to do but hold on. The horse was in charge.”
This video, created from a series of still photos, gives you a sense for how long the jumping horses were an attraction.
There are some wonderful photos owned by Life Magazine that cannot be embedded but are well worth a look!
In this photo, a woman trains a horse to jump by offering it a carrot. I don’t know about your horse, but I don’t think mine would consider a carrot to be enough of an enticement!
Those readers who want to learn more about the diving horses might enjoy renting the Disney movie Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken. It’s a nice family movie even if Sonora Carver didn’t think it was all that accurate.