In the mid-1800s when TV, the internet and movies were unimaginable, Wild West travelling shows were all the rage in entertainment featuring Indians, shooting contests, daredevil riding and mock battles. Buffalo Bill Cody’s show was one of the most famous throughout the USA and Europe, and with cowboys just about everywhere, similar shows sprang up like tumbleweeds in Texas.
Doc Carver was Cody’s partner but moved out on his own doing shooting exhibitions in the 1870s. After he became world champion shooter in 1883, he decided to create his own Wild West Show, invested about $27,000 in it and, while his shooting prowess was a crowd pleaser, it was his diving horses that kept ticket sales brisk and the crowds flowing. According to Carver, he got the idea after he and his horse had to literally jump into a river when part of a bridge beneath them collapsed.
In 1907 in San Antonio, Texas, people flocked to The Great Carver Show to see a horse diving 40 feet with a young fellow named Oscar Smith riding him. Sadly, something went very wrong and Smith died but the horse lived. The four city papers had a field day with the news but the “Light” papers were sold out when they ran a front page photo of the imminent death just seconds away taken by a camera that was able to capture action photos. Then to add insult to injury, two days later Carver’s promotion man placed an ad in the “Light” making no mention of the boy’s death but promising that the Five High Diving Horses Will All Dive. Oscar Smith faded into obscurity remembered only by family and friends.
In 1924, young Sonora Webster, who would later become America’s best known horse diver, answered a newspaper ad and joined the show. She started out helping with the horses, eventually became a horse diving rider and later married Carver’s son Al. Dr. Carver died in 1927 but the show went on and two years later found a permanent location in Atlantic City in New Jersey. Sonora continued to ride her horse Red Lips in the show however, in 1931, the horse lost his balance, and she hit the water at a bad angle, detached her retinas and she was blinded for life. Once recovered, she resumed her act for 11 years, the blindness adding another exciting dimension to the performance.
“The horse was in charge”
Sonora also had a sister Arnette who joined the act at 15 years old in 1928 and left in 1935. For five years, from two to six times daily she put on a bathing suit, climbed the wooden ladder, jumped on a horse who cantered up a ramp and then jumped into mid air landing in 12 feet of water. Arnette claims that despite rumours to the contrary, Dr. Carver really cared for the horses adding, “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.”
The biggest challenge she said in an interview in 1997 was, “to keep your head tucked down to one side, so that when the horse raised his head as he jumped up at the bottom of the pool, you didn’t get smacked in the face.” Another challenge was to get out of the way of hooves once the horse had landed and the rider was off its back and in the water.
“Horse Diving Belongs in History Books”
Horse diving continued at the Pier until 1978 when the structure deteriorated so badly that it was closed. Donald Trump, the present owner of Steel Pier did try to start a diving mule show in 1994 but animal rights activist protested so much that it was closed down. About 55,000 people signed a petition and threatened to march Anthony Catanoso, owner of the Steel Pier Amusement Park up a ramp and cattle prod him into diving into the water. The President of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle said, “This is a merciful end to a colossally stupid idea.”
When the diving horse shows were closed in 1978, the two horses Gamal, 26 and Shiloh, 9 who had thrilled crowds by diving into 10 feet of water up to 28 times a week were about to be sent to the slaughterhouse. Scant thanks for their years of making money for somebody! Happily The Fund for Animals were able to take Shiloh to their Black Beauty Ranch refuge in Texas, and later Gamal followed.
On 1961 Sonora wrote a book titled A Girl and Five Brave Horses which is based on her life as a diver.
In 1991 Walt Disney Pictures made a movie called Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken based, very loosely, on the life of Sonora Carver and her diving horse act in Atlantic City. Although she could not see the movie she did go to it with her sister Arnette but Sonora was disappointed by the film and the way in which it depicted her life and career. She told her sister that, “The only thing true in it was that I rode diving horses, I went blind, and I continued to ride for another 11 years.” Her sister Arnette added, “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.”
Sonora died at the age of 99 on September 21, 2003. She lived in Pleasantville, New Jersey at the time of her death.