Yes, they really did that! Looking back on Atlantic City’s Diving Horse
Today it would never happen thanks to animal cruelty laws, but once upon a time in Atlantic City women used to ride diving horses into an 11-foot tank at the Steel Pier.
The idea of a diving horse act came about when William "Doc" Carver, who was a champion marksman and partner of Buffalo Bill Cody and his traveling Wild West Show, left after a falling out to form his own troupe.
According to womenofageridinghorses.com, "Carver got the idea while attempting to outrun outlaws, he started over a bridge which gave way throwing he and his horse into a stream below." They started it at Electric Park in San Antonio Texas where people came from miles around to pay as much as 50 cents to see it.
When Carver died his son took AJ took over the business and married the rider Sonora Webster. They would settle the show in Atlantic City.
The way they did it in Atlantic City had the horse run up a 40-foot carpeted ramp with the rider waiting on top to mount as the horse ran by to take the plunge together. The horse would then dive into an 11-foot tank and push off the bottom to spring back up. They would also throw their head so the rider had to make sure to keep her head to the side.
According to womenofagegridinghorses.com, no horse was ever injured, but the girls riding them suffered broken bones and black eyes.
Tragically for Sonora Webster, in 1931, her horse Red Lips slipped while attempting a dive and fell nearly straight down, Sonora, in an attempt to avoid him flipping over sat as far back as she could but she hit the water with her eyes open. She would eventually go blind from the incident and the audience never knew.
Webster's story became a Disney film in 1991 called "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken."
Later, Webster's sister would tell the New York Times:
"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 lasted until 1978 when pressure from animal rights groups forced it to shut down.
Among the women riders was Sarah Detwiler Hart wife of the late Philadelphia Flyers announcer Gene Hart. In 1994, Donald Trump's organization tried to bring it back with mules and miniature horses but to no avail.
I polled my audience to see what they've heard of the legend of the diving horses:
I remember the diving horse. Animal abuse.
I remember the Chicken Man episode about it!
Gina Preston Caplan
I read a book about them years ago.
I was a kid. My first taste of showbiz. It was overwhelming.
I remember Thorton Mellon used to appear there with the diving horse. Years later, he went to college with his son Jason and joined the swim team. He did the triple lindy, lol.
It was on the end of the steel pier. We would play the arcade games, wheels,and go on rides waiting for the next jump. I think they did it every hour or 2, Was so cool. Would spend the day on the steel pier and beach and watch the horse jump off the pier
I seem to recall hearing once that Gene Hart of the Flyers was the stage announcer for the Diving Horse
I suppose a diving horse when I was in Cub Scouts at the Steel Pier. Years later they had Atlantic City antiques and had gathered the girls who used to ride the horse. The ladies were all up there in age and they were all in wheelchairs! I talked to a couple of them and they blame the cold Waters of the Atlantic instead of the actual dive from the top. The comedian Alan King did a all routine upon it and how they got the horses to jump by shoving a cattle prod where the sun don't shine on horses!
Saw it many times. Now I think it was cruel
Jersey Steve Tortu
They made a movie about it it was pretty accurate
Yes, the diving horse was scary to watch as a kid, but they also had coin-operated vending cages of "basketball" chickens where you put money in, the bell rang and they used their beaks to make baskets with a ping pong ball, then the chicken feed would fill the cup for the chicken to eat. As a kid it was funny, as an adult now, it was very sad
Opinions expressed in the post above are those of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Steve Trevelise only. Follow him on Twitter @realstevetrev.
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