The Horse Diving Sisters

Did you know that Atlantic City, New Jersey, may see the return of the “Diving Horse Show” popularized there in the 1940s through late ’60s? It may seem odd, but the owners of the Steel Pier, which was once an iconic family entertainment destination, are bringing the act back, as part of their revitalization plan for the Pier.

If you’ve watched the movie, “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” you’ll know the most famous of the divers was Sonora Webster Carver, who rode the diving horses for nearly a full 20 years, from 1923 to 1942.

While the show travelled around North America in the early years, it became a permanent fixture at the Steel Pier from 1929 on. At the age of 27, in 1931, Sonora was blinded with a retinal detachment, attributed to hitting the water with her eyes open, perhaps just once, or perhaps, one too many times. While she herself may have lost her sight she always insisted that the horses loved the dives as much as she did, and were in no way ever harmed, or for that matter, forced to jump.

She came into this incredible line of work by replying to a newspaper ad looking for girls who were “not afraid of heights and willing to travel.” Here’s a film clip of her.

The Diving Horse Show was invented by Dr. (Doc) W. F. Carver, who also had ties with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Many different stories circulate on how Dr. Carver came up with the idea, but the most popular is that one day he was riding across a bridge, which collapsed and sent him and his horse into the river below. The horse “dove” into the water and they swam safely to shore. This made him wonder if horses could be taught to dive, and the act was conceived.

Sonora signed on at the age of 20, and her sister, Arnette followed in her footsteps a few years later at the age of 15. The act was a great sensation of the times.

Sonora’s 1961 autobiography, “A Girl and Five Horses”, was the inspiration for the 1991 film. The diving horses were the iconic attraction at the Pier until being dicontinued in the ’60s following complaints from animal-rights activists.

A little known fact is Sonora was disappointed in the movie. Her sister, Arnette, remarked in a 1997 New York Times article by Bill Kent:

“They weren’t so truthful about the facts in that movie, either. My sister was so disappointed in it. I remember her turning to me in the theater after we saw it, and her saying, ‘the only thing true in it was that I rode diving horses, I went blind and I continued to ride for another 11 years.’’

She felt the Disney movie was over-romanticized. As her sister explained, “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.”

She also commented on the welfare of the horses in the same article.

“What impressed me was how Dr. Carver [manager of the horse diving act, and later, husband of Sonora] cared for the horses,” Arnette 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, Arnette 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.”

Apparently, the sisters lived the life of Riley as well. Arnette was 84 when she gave this interview in 1997, and her famous sister Sonora, died just a few months short of 100.

While Sonora may have downplayed her own courage, I’ve always seen these adventurous diving horse sisters from our history as spirited and inspirational.

Comments

  1. This is incredible. Most of our horses wont jump a puddle well alone off a ramp into a pool. Although not on my bucket list – Way cool !