Stunt shows featuring diving horses began in the 1880s and were a wildly popular attraction for decades, despite the obvious cruelty to the animals and the danger it posed, ironically, it would seem, more for the riders than the horses’ theme.
According to Texas Escapes, horse diving was “invented” by a man named William “Doc” Carver. Carver had worked with Buffalo Bill Cody, but by the 1880s he was traveling the country with his own Wild West show. He was a champion sharpshooter, and his rifle skills were the main attraction to the show, but after a while, he added a new gimmick: diving horses.
Allegedly, in 1881 Carver was crossing a bridge over Platte River (Nebraska) which partially collapsed. His horse fell/dove into the waters below, inspiring Carver to develop the diving horse act.
Carver trained various animals and went on tour. His son, Al Floyd Carver, constructed the ramp and tower and Lorena Carver was the first rider. Sonora Webster joined the show in 1924. She later married Al Floyd Carver.
One of the most famous shows of William “Doc” Carver was “The Great Carver Show” which became the center of attraction at the Atlantic City’s Steel Pier in New Jersey. This bizarre show involved a horse with a young lady in a swimsuit on its back, jumping from a high platform into a pool of water below.
The platforms were set as high as 40 feet. The diving horse ran up a carpeted ramp while the rider waited at the top, mounting as the horse ran by to take the plunge together.
When the horses landed in the tank, which was about 11 feet deep, they would go down until their hooves touched the bottom and then push off to get back to the surface. Divers often trained with their horses for years, gradually moving up to higher and more challenging diving platforms.
The horses often threw their heads up to help with momentum. The diving girl had to make sure she kept her head to the side or she would surface with a bloody nose, black eyes, or broken cheekbones and collar bones.
Allegedly, in all the years the show ran, there was not one reported incident of injury to any of the high diving horses. However, the same cannot be said for the riders.
On average there were two injuries a year, usually a broken bone or a bruise. The most serious injury in the show’s history happened to Sonora Webster.
In 1931, during a dive, her horse dove into the tank off-balance, causing her to hit the water face first. Sonora failed to close her eyes quickly enough, resulting in detached retinas that left her sightless.
Despite being blinded, Sonora continued with the act for eleven more years. A film based on her life, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, was released in 1991 and was based on her memoir A Girl and Five Brave Horses.
Opposition from animal welfare activists brought the horse diving shows in Atlantic City to an end in the 1970s. Although there was a brief resumption of the act at the pier in 1993, it was again shut down amid opposition. T
he horses sometimes dove four times a day, seven days a week. An attempt in 2012 to revive the shows at Steel Pier was halted when animal welfare advocates petitioned the owners not to hold the shows.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress / Flickr / Grunge).