Should the Diving Horses be brought back to the Jersey Shore?

Diving Horses of Steel Pier
Horses and riders (all women) dove off Steel Pier in Atlantic City for 50 years. Originally the platforms were 60 feet above the water. They were lowered to 40 feet after Sonora Carver's diving accident left her blind.UPDATE** On February 14th the owners of Steel Pier announced that they have scrapped their plans to bring back the diving horses.

UPDATE: On February 14th the owners of the Steel Pier announced they had scrapped their plans to bring back the diving horses.

One of the main attractions of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier was the diving horses. From the 1920s until the 1978 (yes, 50+ years!) horses ridden by women in swim suits dove from a 40 foot platform into a pool. I wrote about it some time ago (Don’t try this at home: the diving horses of Atlantic City).

Now, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority announced plans to bring back the famous act as part of the first phase of the Steel Pier improvement project.

The decision has caused a lot of controversy. While contemporary accounts from the riders indicate that the horses who participated in the act were not coerced — read the account that was emailed to me by rider Louise Lamoureux, What was it like to ride a diving horse? — animal rights activists are already gearing up for a fight.

Not all contemporary accounts are as positive as the ones reported by Sonora Carver or Louise Lamoureax. I found an anonymous person’s first person account (posted on the Circus No-Spin blog) that suggests horses didn’t always want to jump:

They didn’t like doing it at all, and I saw numerous times the cosequence (sic) for refusing. Of course the shpeel was how they looked forward to the jump because of the carrot they got at the end. One windy day, the granstand (sic) was half full and the horse refused to jump. There was no way to get down except for backing down the ramp or jumping. They tried to get the people to leave, but no one budged. The horse stood up there for close to an hour before the crowd finally left and they could go up and push him off. Believe me, there was no carrot waiting that time.

Riders of the Diving Horses were always glamorous young women
The riders of the diving horse were always glamorous young women, clad in bathing suits.

Certainly there were injuries, but it doesn’t seem like there were as many as you would expect, especially since there was little concession to safety other than the primitive helmet worn by the riders — many of the young women suffered broken bones that occurred when the horses were trying to get out of the pool (not during the fall). Sonora Carver, perhaps the most famous of the riders, did go blind when she did not close her eyes and suffered detached retinas. However, she continued to ride the diving horses for another decade after her injury.

I discovered you can by the Kindle version of Carver’s book, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, on Amazon so I’m off to read it tonight. Carver reportedly dismissed the way her story was told in the Disney Movie, Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken. I saw the movie a few years ago and am looking forward to hearing her version.

So what do you think? Should the diving horses return to Steel Pier? Would it be possible to make the act safer? Would you go and watch?

9 thoughts on “Should the Diving Horses be brought back to the Jersey Shore?

  1. The diving horses are an interesting historical event, however, I hope that the advocates are able to fight the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and help them to find other ways to promote their business. Horses (and humans) jumping off platforms into pools for amusement just doesn’t make a lot of sense and is not worth the risk.

  2. Um, no. Here’s the deal. I submit that anyone who thinks this is hunky-dory should be required to dive from that exact same height head first … no arms extended … into a pool of water. As a kid I made the horrible mistake of diving head first off a 1.5-story cliff. It felt like I hit cement even though I was able to extend my hands to break the water. I can’t imagine what it would have felt like had I not stuck my arms out in front of my head. In this case the horse’s head breaks the water for the rider, but they don’t have a choice in the matter. So everyone who thinks this sort of entertainment is just peachy should be required to do that dive with their hands tied behind their back first. (Sans horse) Then they can give their vote.

  3. Can’t think of anything more cruel – other than bull fighting!. Diving horses are a mistake from the past – one never to be repeated!

    1. I couldn’t find any records of horses that were injured — several of the diving girls broke bones but that mostly occurred in the pools when the horses were scrambling to get out. Of course, back in the 20s and 30s I doubt that animal injuries would have been reported.

  4. While it’s certainly a piece of history, I believe it should stay that way – as history. The world’s attitude towards animals was completely different in the 20’s and 30’s. I think that we should honor the fact that animals are no longer seen as “dumb animals.” Look at all of the literature, all of the clinicians, all of the studies that have been done to prove the intelligence and incredible heart that horses have. Though some horses may have gone willingly off of the diving board, it seems to me that jumping would not be a choice any horse would have made on its own – rather, it was probably doing so to fulfill the wishes of its trainer or rider. We’d be undermining all of the progress that’s been made in the past century if we were to bring this back – for what? For a thrill? It seems over-the-top dangerous to bring back the diving horses for simple entertainment.

  5. This is a TERRIBLE thing to bring back!! And, equestrians, and horse lovers need to become VOCAL NOW about this. The owners of the Steel Pier, by the way winner of 9,,5 million dollar NJ lottery in 1993, are bringing this back by Memorial Day. Please sign the petition here, and pass it along. !6,000 signatures now-

    for more info – facebook page –

  6. I finished her book this evening! Truthfully I’m a little torn on the issue… my gut tells me its a little barbaric, but I also get concerned watching Rolex X-Country (arguably, Rolex is a sport requiring talent whereas diving is mere thrill, though Sonora seemed to assert that flair and bravery were required in a diving horse…) On the heels of the recent slaughter debate, its tiring to once again have another contentious issues rearing its angry head!

  7. Corinna,
    I’m truly surprised you find this a “little” barbaric. Training horses to plunge 40 ft into pool of water, and you’re just a little torn on this issue? Go with your gut on this one, Corinna, and realize it is barbaric. Everyone I know is absolutely, shocked that this is being brought back. Atlantic City has opportunity to be reborn with new casino opening this summer. I don’t know any family who would take their children to see this in this day and age. Big, big , BIG MISTAKE, Atlantic City.

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