There are some things that would never pop into my mind no matter how many nights I battle insomnia. Oh, I’m not saying I can’t come up with some pretty oddball ideas, but I’m relatively certain that I never would have thought of asking horses dive off a giant pier in Atlantic City. When I have too much on my mind and cannot fall asleep, I generally count sheep. But Dr. William Frank Carver was not the sort of man to be content with counting sheep! He had visions of diving horses, and remarkably, a desire to fulfill them.
Doc Carver was a one-time partner of Buffalo Bill Cody, a guy who knew a thing or seven about drawing a crowd. When Doc Carver’s partnership with Buffalo Bill went sour, Doc organized his own Wild West show. Knowing that sometimes it pays to be straightforward, he called his show, “Wild West.” Unfortunately, Buffalo Bill was already using “Wild West” for his show’s name. The two rivals spent a lot of time in court. Eventually, Carver’s show fell apart and he didn’t have the resources to reorganize.
Doc Carver maintains that the idea for diving horses came to him when he was crossing the Platte River, in 1881, and there was a partial bridge collapse. According to his story, his horse took a dive into the water and POW, the idea for diving equines was born. Now, that may be true. But it’s also important to remember that Carver was a showman who wasn’t above stretching the truth if he felt that it made a pretty good story. In fact, it is believed that he pushed his birthday back about 14 years to make his adventure stories more plausible. So, whether he came up with the idea while he was plunging into water on horseback, or if it came to him during a night of fretful sleep, he is still credited with the idea.
Even in the 1800s, nepotism was alive and well. Doc’s new partner was his son, Al Floyd Carver. It was Al Floyd who built the ramp and tower for the diving horses. Doc’s daughter, Lorena Carver, became the first “girl on the diving horse” when she rode Doc’s horse, Silver King, off of the tower built by her brother. It takes all kinds, but I personally believe that Lorena drew the short straw in that family business! The diving horses went on tour and eventually became a permanent fixture at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.
Pier into the Past
It is believed that The Great Carver Show first opened in the mid 1890s. (Remember, dates were not Doc Carver’s strong suit.) Oh, there were other acts, but the diving horses were the cash cow in that business venture! Crowds swarmed to see the spectacle of a horse and rider taking a plunge from a 40 to 60ft-high platform into a 10ft pool of water.
Lorena wasn’t the only thrill-seeker. The show featured many riders in its history. As you might expect, this career was not without dangers. Lorena herself was said to have suffered an average of one broken bone a year. That doesn’t sound so bad…considering. I am happy to report that I found her obituary and Lorena lived to the ripe old age of 95!
There is one report of a rider, by the name of Oscar Smith, who lost his life in 1907 when something went wrong with a dive. In truth, we don’t really know how many injuries were sustained over the years. But we do know about the most famous one.
Sonora Webster joined The Great Carver Show in 1923. According to her memoirs, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, Sonora’s mother had seen 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.” Sonora did join the show. She even joined the Carver family when she married Al Floyd Carver. In 1931, Sonora was blinded in a horse diving accident. It seems she went into the water with her eyes open and both of her retinas were detached. But, remarkably, that was far from the end of her career. Sonora continued diving for eleven more years! She was such an expert that the crowds didn’t even realize she was blind for about five of those years!
The 1991 Disney movie, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, was inspired by Sonora’s memoirs. While certain liberties were taken, the essence of Sonora’s story is still there. It tells of her love for the horses and her perseverance that was too strong to keep her sidelined. Like her sister-in-law, Sonora lived a long life. She passed away in 2003, at the age of 99!
Take a Dive
Throughout the years, animal activists have had a thing or two to say about the diving horses. Even in the days of Doc Carver, protestors filed suit against him, alleging cruelty to animals. The judge dismissed the case after examining the horses and finding no indications of abuse. Sonora’s sister, Annette, who also rode diving horses, maintained that no horses were ever injured, during all of the years of the act. Other sources indicate that is not true.
There is no doubt that the sport was not without risk. Horses often dove four times a day, seven days a week. One riderless horse is known to have died when it was practice-diving directly into the Atlantic. The dive went fine, but the horse became confused and swam out to sea. By the time lifeguards recovered the horse she could not be resuscitated.
By the Seashore
Following the death of Doc Carver, Al, Sonora and Lenora continued the show. However, in 1978, the condition of Steel Pier caused an end to the show. Even though some people have wanted to recreate the act, times have changed. In 2012, there were plans to reestablish the diving horses of Atlantic City, which were shelved due to public outcry.
So, we are left with the film footage and still photos from decades of horse diving. I don’t know about you, but the images always send a little shiver down my spine. And tonight… who knows? I may just find myself counting diving horses instead of sheep.
Watch this video footage of the amazing diving horses!
Happy Trails, y’all!