Diving horses: from Wild West sideshow to Atlantic City attraction
February 22, 2015 8:09 PM   Subscribe

William Frank Carver was a renowned shooter in the wild west, generally called Doc Carver for his (unused) dentistry training (or possibly his time caring for animals when he was younger [Google books preview]). He went on to put on shooting and wild west exhibitions with Buffalo Bill and others (source). To expand his shows, he turned to other feats of showmanship, including horse diving. Eventually, horse diving eclipsed the rest of the shows, and Doc added his son and daughter to the events. His son Al built the ramp and diving apparatus, while his daughter Lorena was the first “girl on the diving horse.” Going forward, most of the notable divers were young ladies, including Sonora Webster, who joined the show in 1923. She went blind from a diving accident in 1931, but continued to dive until 1942. There's not much video of diving horses due to the whole practice losing general support and/or appeal well before the proliferation of personal video cameras, but here is a short clip of 19 year old "Jackie" Carvan diving 60 feet on a horse from 1923, and two horses diving without riders in the mid-1960s.

Doc Carver moved from Illinois to Nebraska to homestead, but his mother was the one who farmed, while he focused on shooting. He gained fame as champion rifle shot of the world, challenging any and all to best him in various shooting challenges. Fitting with the times, his early biography is full of boasts, exaggerations and out-right fabrications on his life before the turn of the twentieth century.

His biography was published before the decline of his wild west show, which disbanded in 1893. The next year, Carver put together a smaller show, which featured a variety of trained animals, including his daughter Lorena diving on the back of a horse, from a height of 40-60 feet into relatively shallow water, as little as 10 feet deep. Over time, the show became one of diving horses only, and generally looking for young women, including as told in Sonora Webster's memoir. Sonora joined the show at a point when Doc was withdrawing from the business, turning it over to his son, Al.

Doc died in 1927, and the show became a fixture at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City in 1928, under the pier's ownership by Frank Gravatt. Sonora was the first woman to dive on a horse at the pier. Shortly after she was engaged to Al Carver, she was blinded in a diving accident, but she continued to dive for another 11 years. Here is a silent clip of Sonora on Red Lips, date unknown, and a longer article on her life. Sonora wrote her memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, in 1961, and 30 years later, Disney adapted her story for the film Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (Wikipedia; trailer). In an interview with Arnette French, Sonora's younger sister who also dove on horses, Arnette recalled
''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.' ''
Sonora lived to be 99. She and others wrote that the horses weren't mistreated or forced to dive, and it seemed there was more potential for the riders to get injured than the horses. Texascapse has a write-up on the death of one young rider, 18-year-old Oscar Smith in 1907.

Horse diving survived both that fatality, and an ill-fated attempt to take the show to Europe (Google news archived article) following the 1944 hurricane that partially destroyed Steel Pier and more, as covered in an article on Betty Perillo, who ran away from her life as a young would-be socialite to join the diving horses. The diving horses returned to Steel Pier, as seen in these videos of Steel Pier attractions at an unknown date, and in the 1970s. Horse diving ended at Steel Pier in the late 1970s, and came back briefly in 1993 "with a traveling Florida group dubbed the High Diving Mules. A miniature horse, a mule and a dog were part of the routine, said Catanoso. No human riders were involved." There were thoughts of reviving the act in 2012, but public opposition was too great.

If you really want to see a diving horse act in the US, you can visit Magic Forest and watch as Lightning the Wonder Horse jumps almost ten feet into a 14 feet deep, 30-feet wide, 117,000 gallon pool of water.
posted by filthy light thief (16 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't had a chance to read through the whole FPP, but having watched several of the videos, I'm struck by two things: one, the body language of all those horses seems pretty relaxed and unworried to me, and two: why on earth did this become a thing? It's over in five seconds, the falling horses seem ungraceful and flailing, and there doesn't seem to be any particular athletic skill or long training involved on the part of the horse. I mean, I know that the horses used for this probably have to have a high level of trust in their humans and I'm sure it takes a long time to work up to even a short dive for a horse.

And I say this as someone who really loves watching animals do trained work and as someone who thinks things like dressage and competitive obedience can be gorgeous to watch; and I've watched dock diving in dogs plenty of times before and would be thrilled to try to play it. There are other equestrian events with a long history, like equine high jumping, that are now controversial because people also worry about horse injuries--but I can totally see why people would be fixated by them. I just don't quite get why people would pay to show up to watch a horse dive.

Would someone who does get the appeal be willing to explain it?

Thank you for posting this, by the way--this is an event I'd never heard of, and one I'll be happily reading much more about tomorrow.
posted by sciatrix at 8:38 PM on February 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

Indeed, why watch humans on top of large animals falling into water when we could watch antics of quirky low-income southern family or, better yet, desperate humans competing in speed of manufacturing of small cakes? Admit it, Zorflax, that first idea is just preposterous.
posted by Behemoth at 8:45 PM on February 22, 2015

....I'm sorry if the question is an insulting one? I wanted to ask what people liked, because I'm honestly interested in what other people have to say. I wasn't trying to say "this is terrible, these other things are better," but I can see how I may have come across that way--instead, I was trying to say "Huh, this is clearly something with really enduring appeal to many people, but for some reason I'm not seeing it and I find that surprising. Does someone who gets the appeal want to talk about why they find it appealing?"

Or is that a question that's worthy of sarcasm and derision too?
posted by sciatrix at 8:58 PM on February 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

If diving horses can find an audience, would diving cattle also work? What about llamas? Elk? Goats? Like sciatrix, I can't quite understand what the appeal is. However, I would willingly shell out good coin for tickets to see cats dropped from heights into tanks of cold water.
posted by fredludd at 9:27 PM on February 22, 2015

I loved the fucking shit out of this movie. (Despite being pretty anti circus animal today.) Historical blind girl loves horses? YES PLEASE.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:29 PM on February 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

I've been an avid horse rider from a young age, and to say I was horse obsessed as a kid would be a major understatement. I remember watching this movie as a kid (along with just about every horse movie ever made), and I have to say, I'm with sciatrix. Compared to show jumping eventing, dressage, barrel racing, horse racing, this just seems so much less compelling. There is no competitive aspect, and it doesn't seem to require the kind of skill and training that the other disciplines do. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure that plenty of training and talent went in to doing this, but from an observer's perspective it's kind of hard to engage with.

With that being said, maybe part of it is that it just seems so dangerous for both the horse and the rider, although I get that they said horses weren't injured during these shows, but frankly there is something that just feels so wrong about having a horse dive from that high up into a pool of water. Granted, I'm well aware of how dangerous other equestrian sports are, and I have a lot of moral objections to the more extreme ones, particularly horse racing, but somehow it seems very different to me. Then again, I'm also terrified of heights, so maybe I'm projecting a bit.

Thank you filthy light thief for putting together this amazing FPP!
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:30 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

PREACH, Eyebrows McGee! Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken played every two minutes on the Disney Channel and my horse-obsessed kid self loved it. Plus Gabrielle Anwar was fucking luminous. Is there a non-condescending way to say "luminous?" She glowed like she was riding a unicorn.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:43 PM on February 22, 2015

On days when it rained too hard to ride and the indoor was too crowded, we'd have horse movie day at my barn, and it was almost always Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (well, it alternated with International Velvet). LOVED this movie as a kid, whatever the inaccuracies.

As for its appeal, I'm guessing it really is about the trust factor between horse and rider. Given how outraged my horses all seemed whenever I tried to sponge off their faces or even just got at them with a damp cloth, the idea of them willingly tumbling off a ramp into a pool seems astonishing to me. And who doesn't like seeing things fall down, especially when we normally think of them as kind of graceful?
posted by TwoStride at 10:23 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah I'm thinking novelty and "holy shit, never seen anything like that!" factor got it going. People really like the sensation of seeing something unlikely or unimagined happen. The fact that it apparently was not more dangerous than any other circus act kept it going. Then it lost the novelty factor and horses lost their prominent place in society and probably were starting to be valued more.
posted by bleep at 1:02 AM on February 23, 2015

I also meant to say that this was a great post!
posted by bleep at 1:02 AM on February 23, 2015

I've been re-reading Ralph Moody's autobiographical books, and I really thought this was going to be about trick riding. I was quite amazed to discover that no, diving horses means diving. horses.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:39 AM on February 23, 2015

Would someone who does get the appeal be willing to explain it?

If the idea of a large land creature plunging into a huge tank of water does not make you at the very least curious, then there is no explaining that can be done. Like jazz, like Pollock, like sriracha -- sometimes people like things that other people are utterly mystified by, and neither set of people are lesser for their preferences.

And I think your question only came off as (potentially) insulting because a lot of "I just don't get it -- can someone explain it to me?" type questions are really just preludes to "I hate this and I hate you for not hating it and I am going to argue with you about it until you realize that I am a better person than you," especially on the Internet. While I realize that this was probably not your intention, it's not an uncommon thing.
posted by Etrigan at 4:31 AM on February 23, 2015

When I was a kid, I used to pretend I was Sonora. This involved getting into position next to my bunkbed, waiting a few seconds (for the horse to come up the ramp), and then leaping onto the top bunkbed, sitting as if I was on a horse, and then jumping off. I was a short kid and this was no easy feat (probably harder than the real thing) but eventually I got pretty good at springing myself onto the bunkbed from the floor. I spent hours at this, and watched the movie several times to improve my technique.

Now as an adult, it's interesting to see the real story. Thanks!
posted by jenjenc at 5:23 AM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

fredludd: If diving horses can find an audience, would diving cattle also work? What about llamas? Elk? Goats?

Well, I've seen references to Doc Carver's shows including "diving horses, elk, and young women," but not a whole lot about elk. And then there's the touring group from Florida, High Diving Mules, which included miniature horse, a mule and a dog. Smokey the Diving Mule is an other example of a non-horse who is in the high-diving business. Warning: while Smokey walks up the ramp without assistance and/or prodding, there's a minute and a half of Smokey up on the top of the platform before the dive, which made me uncomfortable for Smokey.

Which brings me to the topic of "why is this even interesting?" Personally, I first read about this recently, and I only saw some still photos of someone on the back of a horse in mid-jump/fall. Then I read about the whole weird history, from Doc Carver's sharp-shooting Wild West shows to Atlantic City. But on the jumping itself: I imagine there's a sense of danger and (morbid) curiosity, especially when the horses and riders were diving 60 feet into 10 or 11 feet of water.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:12 AM on February 23, 2015

These things got started in the sideshow era, and they were a sideshow. You could go back to the farm and brag to your cousins about what you saw for a nickel. There's no mystery about it.
posted by emjaybee at 7:12 AM on February 23, 2015

I'm sure part of it was that horses were animals most people interacted with to varying degrees on a daily basis at the time. Monster truck shows would be pretty confusing to a post-car society, but they are popular because they feed our fantasies of just driving over the traffic in front of us. I bet a lot more people at the time could personally relate to the sense of trust and risk such a jump would take.
posted by meinvt at 7:58 AM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

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