For nearly half a century, Atlantic City, in New Jersey, United States, was home to an attraction almost too fantastical to believe—an apparently fearless horse with a young woman on its back would leap off a tower some 40 feet high into a pool of water below. The stunt took place at Atlantic City’s popular venue Steel Pier, where trained horses took the plunge up to four times a day and seven days a week.
The idea of the diving horse was invented in Texas by ”Doctor” William Frank Carver, a 19th century sharpshooter who toured the wild west organizing shows with trained animals and shooting exhibitions. The story goes that in 1881, Carver was crossing a wooden bridge over Platte River in Nebraska when the bridge gave away, plunging him and his horse into the river. The diving horse franchise grew out this mishap, and over time it became Carver’s most favorite act on his traveling animal shows. His son, Al, helped train and take care of the horses, while his daughter, Lorena, is said to have been the first rider. By the time his future daughter-in-law, Sonora Webster, joined the show in 1923, Carver had two diving teams on the road, each performing in a different city.
The diving horse at the Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park, Toronto, Canada.
Carver died in 1927 due to poor health aggravated by the drowning of his favorite horse. Following Carver’s death, the diving horse show continued with Al Carver at the helm. In 1928 the diving horse show came to Atlantic City and became a permanent fixture at Steel Pier for the next several decades.
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, who was the best-known of the horse divers. She joined Carver’s show in 1923 and made her first dive when she was just 15.
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. Her story became the subject of the 1991 Disney film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.
Later in an interview to the New York Times, Sonora’s younger sister, Arnette Webster, remarked:
The movie made a big deal about having the courage to go on riding after she lost her sight. 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.
Horse-diving continued until 1978, when pressure from animal rights groups forced organizers to shutter the show. In 1994, Donald Trump’s organization, which owns Steel Pier now, attempted to bring back the act by featuring diving mules and miniature horses, but public protests once again brought the act to an end.
Sonora Webster, in 1904.
Horse diving into the water at Atlantic City. Photo credit: georgelazenby/Flickr
Diving horse at Atlantic City Steel Pier, 1959. Photo credit: Walter Reed/Flickr
Dimah, the world famous diving horse, Atlantic City NJ. Photo credit: SwellMap/Flickr
Photo credit: Rick Lippincott/Flickr