When was the last time you remember even a glimmer of knowing about the diving horses? At least for me, I think I had seen an image in a LIFE magazine when I was a kid, but I’m sure I never thought about diving horses again. Until today…
THE ATLANTIC CITY STEEL PIER DIVING HORSES
Hubby sent an article to me about the Steel Pier diving horse.
The cogs of my memory wheel moaned into motion as I tried to focus on what I was reading… diving horses? 60′ high platform. HOLY HECK! I can hardly dive from a board over the ledge of a swimming pool! I cannot even imagine diving off of a HORSE, 60′ into that tiny pool!
But, that is exactly what they did…
Here is a link to a video describing the diving horses.
WORSE FOR THE HUMAN
By all accounts, no horse was ever hurt while diving. That cannot be said for the humans… This sport was notorious for breaking bones in pretty damsel divers. The worst human injury was avoided by a head tuck that all later divers adopted – ‘jam your head off to one side of the horse’s neck’.
If you look in almost all of the photos from that time, tucking is exactly what they all did…
Because the Steel Pier pool was 10′ deep. The horses would touch the bottom after their dive and immediately push off raising their heads and necks fairly violently. This for sure would result in a broken cheek or nose of a diver who didn’t tuck.
Consequently, to help break less human bones, the tower was lowered to 40′ and then finally to 30′. But, what got me is that before this show settled at the Steel Pier, it was a traveling show! How did they dismantle this huge structure and then put it together without major mishaps? Dunno. But, they did it.
DANGEROUS FOR THE RIDER
Yes, the show was shut down by animal activists. And, really, I’m OK with that because 30′ is just too far for a human to fall from the sky into a small pool on a horse’s back. Of course I’m sure many horses had their share of nose rotor-rootering, but this whole act was horribly dangerous for the rider.
I mean, if the fall didn’t kill them (which it did only a few times… yikes), the rider dismount under the water could result in various hoof paddle kicks while the horse was scrambling to shore. Oy.
The most famous accident was when Sonora Carver, the acclaimed diver, and her favorite horse, Patches, slipped on the off ramp. Sonora said that she threw her own weight forward to make sure the horse didn’t fall backwards to the water. While concentrating on this, she forgot to shut her eyes and they hit water. Sonora suffered blood clots in her eyes from the broken blood vessels after the force of the blow. However, several days after the accident, Sonora went totally blind from the swelling which created retinal separation.
But she kept diving.
Yup, Sonora loved to dive. So, even blind, she dove for 10 more years. You can read her book. It is called, “A Girl and Five Brave Horses”. She lived for 99 years and passed in 2003. Sonora was blind for 72 of those 99 years.
Also, the movie, “Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken”, was about her life. I never knew that. Now I need to rent it.
As a tidbit, Sonora married Carver’s son.
FIRST HAND ACCOUNTS
I found a website that had some first hand accounts of watching the diving horses. Here is an excerpt:
Best of all was Dimah the Diving Horse, named after Steel Pier owner Mr. Hamid, but spelled backwards.
‘Dimah was a beautiful jet-black filly. Her rider, a pretty young woman, stood on top of a high diving platform waving to the crowd as the announcer called our attention to the small water tank.
“Ladies and Gentleman, Dimah the Wonder Horse is going to dive into this small tank of water. Her rider Miss Olive Gelnaw will guide Dimah during her sixty-foot drop in to the tank. Now we need you to be very quiet, it takes all of her concentration to get it right, or they will miss the tank and fall to their death in the ocean.”
‘The crowd grew silent. Dimah, standing at the bottom of the ramp, was released from her trainer and trotted up the long ramp to the top of the diving platform, and her awaiting rider. Miss Gelnaw, standing on a side railing, sprung effortlessly over to the filly’s back landing just behind the harness. She took hold of the leather strap cinched up around Dimah’s huge girth, before making the big jump.
‘We held our breath as the filly walked to the edge of the platform and looked out over the crowd. Just then a sea gull flew by catching her attention. She lifted her head and sniffed the air, curling her upper lip over her nose. It looked as if she were smiling at us. In a blink of an eye, she slid her two front legs down the ramp, and jumped off the platform. Down she came!
“Sp–lash!” Most of the water in the tank came rushing up in a huge wave, spilling over the sides of the tank, leaving it less than half full. The crowd went wild; Dimah and her rider did a perfect dive. They emerged from the tank and took a bow, the filly’s coat wet and shiny, gleamed in the sun as they led her back to her stall.
“Wow, I want to do that when I grow up!” I said
WHAT SONORA HAD TO SAY…
In her book, Sonora refutes that these horses were made to jump against their will. She said they all loved it.
I found that difficult to believe (as did many animal welfare people) until Sonora followed that thought with:
“Some people say they must have forced the horses to do what they did. Sonora told me many times the last thing anyone would want was to be up on a tower with a horse that did not want to be there.”
That kinda makes more sense than them forcing the horses to do this. I mean, really, she has a point… I’ve been places where a horse didn’t want to be and they really let you know. I cannot imagine being with any of my horses on top of that tower… No human would put themselves 60′ up on the air on a rickety tower with a horse – if the horse was into it. ‘Nuff said.
WELFARE OF THE HORSES
Sonora insisted that the horses lived well. In fact, I read a quote from Sonora’s neice:
Sonora was my Aunt. This was the best clip I have ever seen of her as? a young woman. I was so nice to hear speak as well. The horse she is with is Red Lips..He was her favorite horse.”
Dr. W. F. Carver came up with the idea of horse diving and he was making huge money off of his show. He knew the horses were the show and therefore the horses lived well.
Sonora’s sister, Annette, also joined the show. Here is what Annette said about the welfare of the horses:
”What impressed me was how Dr. Carver cared for the horses,” she 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.”
HOW DID THIS START AND HOW DID IT FEEL?
The original diving horse was Dr. Carver’s own horse, Silver King. They accidentally took a plunge off of a bridge into a raging river. The horse dove in well and emerged even better as he gracefully swam to shore and up the bank. This is what gave Carver the idea.
He then constructed the tower on which he put his daughter, Lorena. Here is what she had to say:
Lorena said her horses loved to jump, often making it difficult to get them to wait to build suspense before jumping. Much depended on the horse, with some leaping immediately off the platform while some took up to 5 minutes to look around. The horse Klatawah (Indian for “go away” or “go to h*ll”), would often paw with his hoof as many times as he felt before diving, a remnant of a pawing-his-age act he had performed. When the crowd was small, Klatawah would make a “few lazy scrapes” and dive from a “reclining” position, but he would prance and show off when the crowd was large.
“I felt his muscles tense as his big body sprang out and down, then had an entirely new feeling. It was a wild, almost primitive feel, that only comes with complete freedom of contact with the earth. Then I saw the water rushing up at me, and the next moment we were in the tank.”
Annette explained why she dove for so long – even after her sister was blinded – and why Sonora continued to dive after her accident:
“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.”
FAMOUS DIVING HORSES
The most famous diving horse was, Red Lips. This was the horse who was diving with Sonora during the tragic accident. The others are: Apollo, Dimah, Duchess of Lightning (or Lightning), Gamal, Gordonel, John the Baptist, Judas, Klatawah, Lorgah, Powderface, Pure as Snow (or Snow), Shiloh and Silver King.
THE TRAGIC FATALITY
There was one horse lost – the very famous and beloved Diving Horse, Lightening. Here is the story:
“Lightning, Sonora’s beloved diving horse, was practice-diving riderless at a tower on a pier. The show people wanted to see if the show could be done successfully into the ocean. Lightning jumped beautifully, then became confused and swam out toward sea. She became tired gave up, and went under. Lifeguards caught up to her and buoyed her up. She was brought back to shore, but couldn’t be resuscitated.”
THE LAST TWO
The show was closed in 1978. At that time, Gamal was 26 and Shiloh was 9. They were purchased by the The Fund for Animals. Gamal lived privately for 10 years with Cynthia Branigan (one of her rescuers). Shiloh lived many years on The Black Beauty Ranch. Her daughter still lives there – or so it is said.
You can read about Gamal in Cleveland Amory’s book Ranch of Dreams.
STEP BY STEP
I paused one video a few times and pieced together what it was like to do this type of dive. Yikes! The horse literally ran up the ramp and the rider, who was waiting up top, would hop on – I’m not joking – as the horse went by. Either the horse would propel himself off or hang there and climb over the edge slowly.
I don’t know which would be worse.
I guess if you are blind like Sonora, it might actually be a good vocation since you would only be thrilled and not terrified.
MODERN DAY DIVING HORSE.
There is a modern day diving horse. His name is Lightening (on purpose and in deference to) and he dives at the Magic Forest Amusement Park in upstate NY. Click the photo below to watch him dive 9’ into a 14’ deep and fairly large pool (in comparison to the Steel Pier).
Here is a link to a newsreel from way back when… Obviously the announcer is not too familiar with the horse world, but if you look at the reel, truly, there is nothing MAKING that horse do what he is doing.
I’m glad they stopped the show but imagine if you were one of the divers and you could stand up at a dinner party and shout, “I rode a horse off of a 60’ platform into a pool of water in front of hundreds of people– often.”
I think the room would go silent…and everyone would gather around to hear the tale.
HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!
March Drop in the Bucket Fund: THE JUNKYARD 4.
These 4 sad horses were found in miserable condition, 2 pregnant, all starved – yet owned by a hay broker! To learn all about the Bucket Fund and to donate towards the care of The Junkyard 4, please click on the photo (photo credit, Trish Lowe)
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