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divinghorses3People have different reactions when they hear about or see diving horses. Some think, “That’s so cool, I wish I could do that!” Some immediately feel sorry for the horse and assume that horrible things were done to it to train it to dive. Others aren’t quite sure what to think.

Diving horses is an event that started in the 1880’s. William “Doc” Carver, a Buffalo Bill “sidekick,” supposedly got the idea for the show when a horse he was riding had to plunge from a bridge into a river. This gave him the idea for a stunt to add to his traveling show. The first rider was his own daughter, Lorena, who jumped on Doc’s horse, Silver King. The act was part of The Great Carver Show. They had many riders, mostly young women.

The job was dangerous, but riders actually averaged only one broken bone a year. Not bad odds for someone vaulting on to a moving horse and plunging over a 40-60 ft. drop into a 10ft. pool. The horse would reach for the bottom with its front feet and when it touched, it would shove off very hard for the surface. If the rider didn’t clamp their head to the side of the horse’s neck, their nose or cheekbone could be broken when the horse’s neck popped up. It wasn’t without other dangers, too. Although some claim that not “a horse or rider was ever seriously injured,” other sources disagree.

In Feb., 1907, 18 y.o. Oscar Smith plummeted to his death when something went terribly wrong with his jump. Local newspapers went crazy with the story, but in only a few days seemed to have forgotten all about the young man’s tragic death. Another young rider said in an article, “two shows after I left, the tank split open when the horse dove. The horse came out of it safe… the girl…” from which we could guess that accidents happened that the general public didn’t hear about.

divinghorses2In 1924, Sonora Webster joined the show. In her memoirs, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, she tells about how her mother saw an ad that read, “Wanted: Attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires to travel. See Dr. W. F. Carver, Savannah Hotel.” Her mother encouraged Sonora to do it. Sonora was not at all interested, but eventually agreed to meet with Doc Carver and watch the show, only to appease her mother. After seeing the show, her interest was piqued, but it was still a while before she joined the show. Then she was hooked and absolutely loved it. The horses became very special to her. A young diver later wrote, “… Mrs. Carver [Sonora married Doc Carver’s son, Al] cared a lot about her horses. … I felt that her horses and the act were her reason to live.”

There is one known case of a diving horse dying in action. Lightning, Sonora’s beloved diving horse, was practice-diving riderless at a tower on a pier. The show people wanted to see if the show could be done successfully into the ocean. Lightning jumped beautifully, then became confused and swam out toward sea. She became tired gave up, and went under. Lifeguards caught up to her and buoyed her up. She was brought back to shore, but couldn’t be resuscitated.

At one show in 1931, Sonora’s horse, Red Lips, lost his balance on the platform, and performed a nosedive straight into the water. Sonora threw her weight back to keep the horse from flipping onto his back. They landed safely, but Sonora hit the water with her eyes open. She experienced mildly foggy vision, but assumed that it was nothing serious. However, her eyesight continued to get worse until she was totally blind. The impact of hitting the water had broken blood vessels in her eyes, which led to blood clots that caused detached retinas. She continued diving for 11 years after her blindness. She was so successful that for around 5 yrs. no one realized she was blind.

Sonora's sister, Arnette, explained Sonora’s decision to continue riding after her accident, "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."

Arnette, who was 15 when she took her first dive on horseback, remarked in an interview that "Wherever we went, the S.P.C.A. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) 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."

Horse diving continued amid protest from animal rights activists. They filed a suit against Doc Carver for cruelty to animals. Doc put his horse in a cart with the words, “I’m Being Taken to Jail For Jumping in a Tank of Water” painted on the side, and drove it all over town. He brought the horse to the trial and offered to bring it inside for the judge to see. The judge came out and looked the horse over, but when he saw what excellent physical condition it was in, he threw the case out of court.

Atlantic City was forced to stop the diving horses act in 1978 because of the poor condition of the Steel Pier. Diving horses continued elsewhere until around 1994, when it disappeared almost completely. Many claim that retired diving horses were sent to the slaughterhouse. It is known that the last two were sent to permanent retirement at Black Beauty Ranch, an animal sanctuary in Texas.

There is still one known operating diving horse. At the Magic Forest Amusement Park in New York, a horse named Lightning jumps 9 ft. riderless into a 14ft. deep pool. He jumps twice a day for two months out of the year. After every jump he gets oats. Magic Forest also has a retired diving horse, Thunder.

wild_heartsIn 1991, Disney made a movie based on Sonora’s life story- with some embellishment. After hearing the movie in theaters, Sonora told her sister Arnette that, “the only thing true in it was that I rode diving horses, I went blind and I continued to ride for another 11 years.” The movie does have a sweet theme of following your dreams, but the anti-diving animal-rights activists threw a fit at its positive portrayal of the diving in general.

The diving horses act was dangerous. No one, even its strongest fans and supporters denied that. The question is, was it more dangerous than many of our horse sports today? Thoroughbred racing, eventing, steeplechasing, etc., are all very dangerous to horse and rider. Many animal-rights advocates say that they should all be abolished. Most horses love their jobs. They love to run, jump, cut cows, etc. There were a lot of people involved who wrote that the diving horses loved their job, also.

What do you think? Join in the discussion about diving horses on the Christian Cowgirl forum.