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Did you say horse diving?

Yes, apparently horse diving used to be a thing. It was the brainchild of Dr. Carver who claims he once had a horse that loved jumping off bridges into the water. Horse Diving eventually became a headline act at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and in many smaller fairs across the country.

Watch a Clip of Horse Diving

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. I know you can’t possibly imagine what it must look like. (I sure couldn’t when I first heard this story!) so let’s watch a clip of a horse diving act from 1923.

That went by pretty quick, didn’t it? Here’s a video that has a compilation of still photos which gives you a little more time to look at what’s happening.

Pretty wild, isn’t it? I’ve ridden horses(and I love it!) and I’ve jumped off the high dive (though only under duress – the low diving board is more my speed) and I can’t even begin to imagine combining the two!

So did the horses really like leaping into the water?

Yes, they did.

You might be skeptical about how willing a horse might actually be to jump from a high platform but as one person wrote, have you ever tried to make a horse do something it didn’t want to do? I have and let’s just say, the horse always wins. So despite how crazy it is, I believe that the horses were not being forced to jump.

The History of Horse Diving

Who Invented Horse Diving?

William F. Carver was a marksman who had toured in Wild West shows with Buffalo Bill Cody. After first leaving the Wild West shows, he wrote a play. Eventually, he started the horse diving act, traveling the side-show circuit for several years.

After Dr. Carver’s death in 1927, his son, Al, took over and was soon able to secure a spot on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City where they could perform all summer long in one place rather than having to travel from town to town for each show.

an imagined poster for The Great Carver Show with a horse silouhette in background
Before the show was permanently established at the Steel Pier, they traveled from city to city. This is a made-up poster that I created with the wording from the ad that brought Sonora to horse diving at the bottom of the poster.

Who Rode the Diving Horses?

Sonora Webster Carver is the most remembered horse diving girl, thanks to her memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, and the Disney movie, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. But many young women enjoyed working as horse divers at the Atlantic City Steel Pier as well as other venues around the country over the years.

The last show at Atlantic City was in 1978. A 2013 article in Tampa Bay Times quotes Barbara Gose who started as a last-minute substitute diver and dove for just one summer in 1966. “It was fun most of the time,” she said, “and I enjoyed the applause.” She said the horses were the “true stars” of the show. Billy and Ruth Ditty, who trained and cared for the horses there, agreed. “The horses took bows,” Ruth said. “They were real comics.”

Dr. Carver was serious about the safety of the horses. In all the years of the act, a horse was never injured. In fact, if anything ever went wrong and the rider was hurt (bloody nose, broken bone, etc), Dr. Carver was firm that it was never the horse’s fault.

Sonora Webster Carver

Sonora Webster had loved horses her entire life and once (unsuccessfully) tried to trade her baby brother for a horse. As a horse lover myself, I can totally relate to the idea that having your own horse is the ultimate dream.

Sonora Carver’s memoir about her life and her time as a horse diving girl, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, opens with the first time she ever saw a horse diving act. She was immediately hooked.

“After I had watched the magnificent dapple-gray horse my whole outlook changed. As emphatically as I had not wished to learn to ride a diving horse, I now wished to learn. The fact was that I had fallen in love, simply and completely.”

-Sonora Webster Carver, A Girl and Five Brave Horses

It all started in 1923 when Sonora’s mother found an ad in the paper looking for someone to join Dr. Carver’s act. Resistant at first, she was converted once she saw the act. She went on to dive for 19 years before retiring.

In 1931 Sonora hit the water with her eyes open and suffered damaged retinas and eventually complete blindness. Initially, she stopped diving but then figured out a way to continue diving despite the accident.

horse with head in open window next to phone showing ebook cover of A Girl and Five Brave Horses by Sonora Carver
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What I loved about Sonora’s Story

The jaw-dropping amazement of horse diving aside, what I really loved about Sonora after reading her memoir is her strength of character and how she was able to keep diving despite losing her sight. She loved diving and didn’t want to give it up. She refused to be helpless and inactive. The voice inside her head said, “You know you’ll never see again. Will you let it ruin your life?”

close up of horse's eye behind text that reads "You know you'll never see again. Will you let it ruin your life?"
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“You know you’ll never see again. Will you let it ruin your life?” I’m not sure I could be this brave and practical if faced with blindness myself.

Her life before the accident wasn’t easy but she had been able to face and overcome any problem she encountered. The accident and the blindness were a much bigger hurdle than she had faced before. She had to first face the reality of her blindness and find her way forward on her own. Ultimately she decides that the best strategy is to just consider the blindness “a minor detail rather than a major catastrophe”.

Attitude is everything which Sonora recognized and used to her advantage. Task by task she began to figure out how to accomplish things without sight. A lesson she learned, that would serve all of us well, is “If you don’t know whether you can do it or not, try it and see.”

silhouette of girl and horse behind text "If you don't know whether you can do it or not, try it and see."
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“If you don’t know whether you can do it or not, try it and see.”

Simple in theory but often much harder in reality.

Disney Brings Sonora’s Story to the Big Screen

Disney brought Sonora’s story to the big screen in the horse diving movie, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Here’s the trailer.

As you may suspect, the Disney version of the story wasn’t exactly the way it happened.

Sonora’s sister, Arnette, remembers her sister saying about the Disney movie, ‘the only thing true in it was that I rode diving horses, I went blind, and I continued to ride for another 11 years.’ 

Arnette, who was also a horse diving girl for a few years, says about the diving, “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.”

PBS Also Brings Sonora’s Story to the Screen

PBS American Masters created an episode of UNLADYLIKE2020 about the world-famous horse diver Sonora Carver. This is an excellent look at Sonora’s life and horse diving in general in just 10 minutes. The video also tells of other blind horsewomen who have had success since Carver.

If the embedded video isn’t working, go to the PBS website to view.

Podcast

You know me… I always love a good podcast episode for diving in and learning more about a topic. Here’s the episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class that introduced me to Sonora Carver and horse diving.

Just imagine me driving down the highway with my jaw dropping as I listened in amazement to this story.

Read the book – A Girl and Five Brave Horses

I’m so glad I decided to read the book to hear Sonora’s own version of the story. Well worth it, in my opinion. You can support your local book store and pick up A Girl and Five Brave Horses from Bookshop (affiliate link).

Read more about horse diving…

Love Horses?

Be sure to read about the Packhorse Librarians

In any weather the pack horse librarians rode to deliver precious books.
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In any weather, from dawn until past dark, the dedicated librarians rode to deliver their precious cargo. (Photo by Muye Ma on Unsplash)

Visit Helen Keller’s Birthplace

Another amazing woman who didn’t let her blindness slow her down – Helen Keller…

helen keller well hand pump for water
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The hand pump for the well where Helen Keller’s big breakthrough with Anne Sullivan occurred. W-A-T-E-R

Sharing is Caring

Share the fascinating story of horse diving on Pinterest!

title image with text: The remarkable and inspiring story of Sonora Carver Horse Diving Legend
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Really everyone needs to know that horse diving used to be a thing, don’t you think?!

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