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Was Horse Diving a Real Thing?

Horse Diving USA
Horse Diving Was a Real Thing. Credit: William James / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Horse diving is something that many people have never heard of. From the late 1800s to the end of World War II, this strange and now-forgotten stunt was a crowd favorite in the United States.

Horse diving was performed by a woman dressed as a swimmer who rode a horse from a platform and into a pool of water underneath. Nearly twice as high as the highest Olympic diving board, this platform could be up to sixty feet tall (18.3 meters).

The world’s most renowned horse diving event took place at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. Huge crowds were often drawn to the area to see the “diving girls” perform the dangerous act.

Public outrage led to the end of this “sport” due to the perceived cruelty and risks it posed to the horses.

The history of horse diving

William Frank Carver
William Frank Carver. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The dentist-turned-showman, Dr. William Frank Carver, is credited with inventing the possibly deadly stunt. Its emergence was supposedly purely accidental and was devised in 1881, when Carver was riding his horse across the Platte River in Nebraska and the bridge collapsed. This sent them both plunging into the river below.

As a result of their successful dive, he decided to see whether he could train horses to perform the stunt for audiences. After returning to Texas, Carver enlisted the help of his son, Al, in training and caring for the horses.

Al’s daughter, Lorena, is credited with being the first rider, although Carver’s daughter-in-law, Sonora Webster Carver, is generally regarded as the first and most famous of the daring diving girls.

Dangerous acts

To the best of our knowledge, no horses were hurt during the whole run of the show. In contrast, humans suffered roughly two injuries per year on average, according to Atlantic City author Gold Levi, who says that there were bruises, broken bones, and even death as a result of the sport.

Sonora, for example, hit the water face first with her eyes wide open during an imbalanced dive, resulting in detached retinas and permanent blindness. Despite this, she kept diving for another eleven years!

While no diving horse was ever officially reported to have been injured due to a jump, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has repeatedly countered this, and there is a range of opinions on whether or not horses were at all harmed by such diving performances.

Animal rights groups generally maintain that horses used in professional diving did in fact suffer a variety of injuries, including internal organ damage, bone fractures, bruises, and wounds on the legs and spine among other things.

The end of horse diving

The number of people who spoke out against horse diving increased over time. Many people and animal rights groups were vocal in their desire for this terrifying show to come to an end.

The Steel Pier in Atlantic City no longer has high-diving horses as a result of diminishing demand and harsh criticism from animal rights campaigners that culminated in 1978. Efforts to pass legislation in support of the sport in 1993 and 2012 failed both times due to public opposition.

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