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.
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?