The High-Diving Horses That Risked Death Every Day to Entertain People

Animal cruelty had a different definition 100 years ago, as the immensely popular horse diving act of the day definitely proves.
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Animal cruelty had a different definition 100 years ago, as the immensely popular horse diving act of the day definitely proves.

Just a girl and her horse.

The fall that started it all

In 1881, when William F. ‘Doc’ Carver and his trusty steed leaped off a collapsing wooden bridge into Nebraska’s Platte River a seed of an idea was planted that would soon grow into one of America’s most popular tourist attractions of the day: horse diving. How far Carver and his horse fell exactly is unknown. What is known is after that event horse diving, under Carver’s direction, took the United States by storm as it made the rounds across the country at state fairs and carnivals.

Before public attention was paid to animal cruelty, people took horses diving from great heights.

The dentist who became a gunslinger

Prior to this Super Soaker of an idea, Carver had been a sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, in addition to being an early business partner of Cody’s. And before we get too far into things, no, we didn’t forget to capitalize the word ‘show’ when mentioning the extravaganza. Cody never spelled it with a capital, so neither will we.

Carver, whose nickname ‘Doc’ came from his original 9-to-5 dentistry day job (we’re going to assume all doctors in the 18th century were branded ‘Doc’ for short), was seen as a bit of show-off back in the day. Whereas Cody was considered to be the real deal and living the life of a frontier pioneer, Carver talked the talk but never really walked the walk. C’mon… the guy was a dentist who took up shooting as a hobby.

Carver also never repeated a horse dive after his initial incident that sparked the idea in the first place, but his 1878 autobiography, ‘Life of Dr. Wm. F. Carver of California: Champion Rifle-Shot of the World’ more than made up for that with page after page of unprovable claims of his accomplishments. Speculation remains as to whether the Carver’s original dive even happened, or whether it was another boast used to up the lore for the public and hype the spectacle.

Doc Carter set up his horse-diving show in 1907.

The horses steal the show

After legitimately becoming a world champion trap shooter in 1883 and leaving Cody’s Wild West show, Carver started his very own touring spectacle that borrowed heavily from Cody’s Wild West idea. The gun-toting dentist was, of course, the headliner of this version of things, and it was here the first ‘intended’ horse dive made its public debut.

Carver quickly saw that mounted horses jumping from tall platforms (anywhere from four to six stories in height) into a 3.5-meter-deep (approximately 12 feet) of water were a major draw for paying spectators and it soon stole the spotlight from Carver’s shooting prowess, becoming the star attraction that separated his show from Cody’s.

People come out to see the diving horse. (Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Eventually, Carver decided to focus entirely on the horses. He set up “The Great Carver Show” at a pavilion known as Electric Park in San Antonio, Texas, in 1907. Crowds familiar with Carver’s equestrian showcase back when it visited the city lined up daily to see it again, paying 50 cents per person (about $12.50 in today’s dollars) to do so.

Doc Carter poses in his heyday.

Bad news sells

It was during the early days of The Great Carver Show at Electric Park that the attraction’s only known fatality occurred when an 18-year-old rider, Oscar Smith, perished in front of a horrified packed house (Smith’s horse did survive). On that day, February 17, 1907, photographer C.J. Overman was in the audience taking some snaps. It was Overman’s picture of Smith and his horse mid-jump that was a front-page feature by the Light, one of San Antonio’s four daily newspapers.

The accident received coverage by all of the city’s publications, but it was that one photo, taken three seconds before Smith’s untimely demise, that saw the Light having to do two printings of that day’s issue.

It what would probably be seen as a distasteful attempt to cash in on the explosion of interest in the potential perils of horse diving (following the tried and true mantra of any publicity is good publicity), Carver’s promotions team saw to it that a full-page ad touting the show was placed in the Light only two days after the accident. Smith’s death was never acknowledged, but the dangers of horse diving were featured, along with a mention of one of Carver’s divers, the “bravest girl in the world.” Carver’s prowess with a rifle also made the cut, in this case with a focus on the fact that his rifle would be firing real bullets.

Carter encouraged his daughter Loreena to join the so-called ‘sport’

Safety first for humans and horses?

Hindsight allows for some skepticism now, but during those early days of horse diving Carver was convinced enough of the riders’ safety that his daughter, Loreena, was one of the first people to participate in the ‘sport.’ According to interviews with some of the show’s former staffers, Carver always went beyond the call of duty when it came the health and well-being of the act’s horses.

When the show went out on tour (at times needing two different troupes in different cities to keep up with demand), representatives from the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) were always onsite.

During the course of Carver’s 50-year run, there was never any reports filed of horses being mistreated or injured. This despite accusations and speculation that horses were being shocked into jumping with cattle prods or placed on diving platforms that would fall out from under a horse’s hooves, making it more of a ‘plummet’ than a ‘leap.’

Once Doc Carter passed away, his family continued the ‘horse-diving’ for some time.

The Carver clan start running the show

In 1927, ‘Doc Carver’ passed away, and the following year the remaining Carver clan moved the horse diving act to a more permanent location at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, where it remained until 1978. Doc’s son, Al, took over the day-to-day operations after years by his father’s side training the horses. Al’s wife, Sonora Webster Carver, and his sisters, Loreena and Arnette, carried on in their roles as swimsuit-clad riders.

For their part in the show, Loreena, Arnette and Sonora were the rock stars of the day. According to Loreena, the Carver horses loved to jump, often having to be gently coaxed into giving the audience below them a moment or two to fully take it what they were witnessing. The horses would parade up a ramp and do their jumps two-six time daily.

The show was not without its risks to the horses’ riders, as had been proven by Smith’s death years prior. Loreena estimates that she broke at least one bone in her body every year of her 25-year career. Those breaks and fractures could heal, unlike the injury suffered by her sister-in-law, Sonora, in 1931.

The reaction to attempts to reviving ‘horse-diving’ in the modern era has been extremely negative.

Tragedy strikes again

On the day in question, Sonora’s horse, Red Lips, took an off-balance jump from the platform. The riders had learned the hard way over time that the best way to enter the pool was with their face to the side of their horse’s neck to avoid being smacked directly in the nose by the horse’s head being forced back when the pair splashed down.

Sonora and Red Lips landed awkwardly, and Sonora hit the water with her eyes open. The pressure exerted on her eyes resulted in Sonora suffering two detached retinas which left her permanently blind.

Despite this, Sonora stayed on with the show as a performer for eleven more years, eventually documenting her experiences in her 1961 autobiography, ‘A Girl and Five Brave Horses.’ The book became the inspiration for the 1991 Disney film ‘Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.’

Horse-diving presentations used to be held at sites like this one.

Horse diving gets grounded

As the 1970s crept on, animal activists increased the pressure on local officials anywhere horse diving was an event to put an end to it on the basis it was animal cruelty (some of the non-Carver-affiliated productions had even started to cross the border to cities like Toronto, Canada).

By the 1980s, horse diving was virtually a thing of the past, a display that was either looked at with fondness or disgust, depending on what side of the animal ethics fence you stood on. Attempts have been made to bring horse diving back to Atlantic City, but protesters and general public scrutiny have meant the idea has always been fought – including a brief return to the Pier in 1993.

The Humane Society of America is on record as saying, “The stress and trauma endured by these animals, in addition to the risk of injury to them, make these acts unacceptable.” After one recent Atlantic City attempt, a petition on collected 10,000 signatures in opposition to the idea in 24 hours.

There is still one horse diving display operating in the United States, in Lake George, New York. For two months each summer visitors can visit Magic Forest Park, where Lightning performs two jumps daily into a four-meter-deep (14 foot) pool from a height of a little less than three meters (nine feet).

A horse dives off a platform.
‘Horse-diving’ continues today at the Magic Forest.

Watch: The High-Diving Horses That Risked Death Every Day to Entertain People