By: Sarah Todd /
The purpose of this project is to investigate the entertainment phenomenon of diving horses that was popular during the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, particularly in the United States.
I will raise and examine several questions surrounding this phenomenon, including: the genesis of diving horses, theoretical approaches to understanding diving horses, how diving horses were mediated and were media, the question of embodiment and erasure, and contemporary incarnations of the diving horse.
(click on images to see largest size)
Most of the information we have about diving horses comes from the autobiographical account of Sonora Webster-Carver, who rode diving horses from 1924-1942, and was present during the dawn of the diving horse phenomenon at Steel Pier, Atlantic City, which lasted from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. Despite the fact that the diving horse act was popular for nearly half a century, Webster-Carver’s story, titled A Girl and Five Brave Horses, remains the only first-hand account of any length or detail.
Of the countless anonymous female divers who performed, Webster-Carver is remembered because of a diving accident which left her blind in both eyes, but after which she still continued to dive for eleven years. Webster-Carver’s story served as the basis for the Disney film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, which romanticized Webster-Carver’s experience, and temporarily brought diving horses back into the public consciousness.
Perhaps the first question is, “How would someone even think of this stunt to begin with?” The stunt does not feel entirely alien – it has the sort of human/animal act of extremity that feel familiar from circuses, and yet the diving horse act is unique in its specificity.
So where did it come from?
According to Webster-Carver, the diving horse show was originated by William Frank ‘Doc’ Carver. Doc Carver was a world-renowned sharpshooter in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, who performed across the planet for royalty, heads of state, and public audiences alike.
Friends and contemporaries with the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, or Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Carver was one of the personalities who came out of the heydays of the Wild West shows. There are apocryphal accounts which state that Carver came up with the idea of diving horses during a daring escape from a gang of bandits, when he and his horse plunged off a high bank into a river to escape capture and possibly death.
There is another version that holds that Carver and his horse were crossing a river during a storm, and the bridge collapsed out from under them. According to Sonora Webster-Carver, however, the truth was that the Doc Carver came up the idea during a stunt in a play (which was loosely based on his own life), in which Doc Carver was performing, called The Scout.
“It was while he was appearing in The Scout that he first happened on the idea of teaching horses to dive.
In the play there was a scene in which Dr. Carver rode a horse over a bridge. It was rigged so that when a stage hand pulled a lever the bridge fell out from under him. He always reached up and caught hold of an upright and hung on, while the horse plunged on down into a river of water which flowed through the middle of the stage.
It didn’t hurt the horse, but it scared him so that he balked at crossing the bridge a second time. As a consequence, Dr. Carver had to use a different horse every night… This worked out all right until the night they ran out of horses.
Dr. Carver suggested that they try an old faithful of his, Silver King. King had been across the bridge before, but Dr. Carver thought he might be willing to try it again, and he was. In fact, after the bridge had dropped out from under him and dumped him in the water, King trotted back up the embankment, ready for an encore.
It was then that Dr. Carver hit on the idea of teaching horses to dive for entertainment purposes.” (Sonora Webster-Carver, A Girl and Five Brave Horses)
I was able to find an image of a promotional flyer for The Scout on a historical item auction site, which appears to corroborate Webster-Carver’s version of the tale. In this flyer, the bridge stunt can be seen clearly depicted in the left-hand panel, and is described as: “An actual scene in Dr. Carver’s ‘Scout’. Horse falling 24 feet into 137 tons of water. A real river on the stage.”
Initially, the diving horse show consisted only of a horse jumping from a tower into a pool of water.
At some point, a female rider was added.
By the time Webster-Carver joined Doc Carver’s team in 1923, the act had been in existence for about ten years, and was known as “Carver’s High-Diving Horse Act and the Girl-in Red.”
The Theory of Diving Girls:
In 1923, Webster-Carver read an ad in a newspaper that said, “Wanted: Attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires to travel. See Dr. W. F. Carver, Savannah Hotel” (Webster-Carver, A Girl and Five Brave Horses).
- Who were these diving girls?
- Doc Carver had gone through several evolutions of this stunt, and determined the most successful approach – but why was it more successful?
- What was it about putting females on horseback for this stunt, as opposed to men, or as opposed to keeping a solo horse performance?
- What about this act kept it in positive public opinion for over half a century?
There are several theoretical approaches to trying to untangle this phenomenon.
One theoretical approach is that, when considering diving horses, there is a sort of innate empathy or connection between the horses and female riders at play, which viewers perceive and are drawn to. In Riding: Embodying the Centaur, Ann Game argues for an embodiment concept that humans are already part horse, and horses are part human, forming a bond that encompasses the historical and mythological. She writes, “There are an infinite number of possible monster forms, but the centaur is one that really works: our bodies know the centaur, we can live the mixing of the centaur. As a mythic figure or archetype, it allows us to ride.” (Game 3)
Game approaches both the sublime and the sexual with her argument for the centaur. In a description of riding the trot:
Unless you allow for the connection, you cannot do it. If the body is not to bump, it needs to be relaxed, open and receptive to the rhythm. It feels as if you are soaking the movement up as you drop into it, drop into the horse as the horse rises into you, rise and fall now contained within your body, within your horse-human body, the very connection generating the movement. The implications of this process are wondrous, even though the riding manuals studiously avoid the obvious sexual connotations of the relation. (Game 9)
Though Game does not specify ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking of a rider, her descriptive voice genders the dialogue as female in this passage.
The overtones of the relations between horses and female sexuality are made clear, and evoke previous connections between women and horses in historico-mythological settings, such as Lady Godiva – a tale where female sexuality is both fixated on as well as denied via elevation to the sublime, and therefore the non-real.
Theorist Kari Weil avoids the mythological approach that Game embraces, and instead offers an examination of the theoretical and philosophical history that has ultimately aligned the feminine and the animal on one side of the spectrum, with the masculine ranged against them, saying,
“From Rousseau through Nietzsche to Deleuze and Guattari, we find a similar condemnation of the domestic pet as a deanimalized creature that has been stripped of its original virile wildness and tamed into a ‘feminine’ and inauthentic servitude.” (Thinking Animals, 56)
Weil also examines historical narrative instances of the masculine turning against the animal and the feminine, threatened by the possibility of their independence and power. This includes a look at deep-seated cultural fears surrounding a female’s control of her own sexuality, especially as it may be connected to, specifically, horses.
Weil discusses Fou by Maupassant, and another example is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, both narratives where women achieve sexual independence and control through equine empowerment, and for which they are then socially and/or physically punished. Weil writes,
“In these stories… manhood is sought through the joint sacrifice of women and animals.” (Weil 71)
Looking through Weil’s lens, one could argue that the pairing of horse and female rider to dive together is the result of decades of gender positioning.
Horse and female are aligned together in a precarious position, in which they are witnessed as both ascending and ‘falling.’ They can perform great feats together, but only at notable physical risk – an ever-looming Sword of Damocles, which could punish them for their daring.
Like Weil, theorist Nikki Savvides recognizes the importance of gender in engaging with human-animal relations.
But where Weil positions us to understand how a gender divide in human-animal interactions came to their current state, Savvides strives to break down that divide, believing it to be detrimental to developing a practical framework for training relations.
Savvides’ work attempts to de-romanticize cultural views of both women and horses, which she claims, “do little to elucidate the complexities of interspecies relations, or to contribute to a practical framework for cooperative training relations between humans and horses” (Savvides 60).
She also pushes back against the ‘innate connection’ model, like we saw proposed by Game, arguing that a gendered view of human-horse interactions limits possible engagements with these animals. In “Loving-knowing’ women and horses: Symbolic connections, real life conflicts, and ‘natural horsemanship’” she writes:
Gendered assumptions about women and animals also limit any recognition of interspecies relations that are not necessarily harmonious. They wrongly suggest that women can relate to animals without the necessary effort, training, and patience required. In this way, assumptions about an innate woman-horse connection do not contribute to a productive analysis of the complexities of these relations. (Savvides 66)
For Savvides, emphasizing any sort of predetermined connection between females and horses is detrimental to all broader human-horse engagements, as well as incorrectly downplaying the intense discipline, effort, and focus it takes to train with horses.
Savvides’ theory offers an alternative lens through which to examine the diving horses and diving girls, as instead of a pairing of the marginalized (animal and woman), they may be examples of how to build successful working and training relationships with horses that are not gender-based or dependent.
We may begin to approach answers in all, some, or none of the above theories. But there is another viewpoint to consider as well: Practicality and showmanship.
In discussing her need to lose weight before beginning diving, Webster-Carver recounts three important factors in choosing a diving-horse rider.
- “It is difficult for a horse to pull out at the incline at the front of the tank if a rider is too heavy.
- Also, it is easier for a lightweight person to move quickly. This is very important, since moving quickly will help the horse to make a good dive out of a bad dive.
- Finally, and strictly from a show-business standpoint, a small rider on a big horse has a more dramatic effect on an audience than a big rider on a big horse.” (Webster-Carver, A Girl and Five Brave Horses)
There may be something to be said for the idea that ultimately, smaller-framed female riders doing a thrilling stunt on horseback just ‘make for a better show.’ It would be hasty of us, however, to discount the influence of the theories we’ve seen in determining why it would be a considered a better show than watching a male perform the same stunt.
As with most historical phenomena, however, we will likely never get at a single easy answer in this matter.
Embodiment, Erasure, Mediation:
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the diving horse phenomenon is the meeting of embodiment and erasure in the stunt. The horses and riders are infinitely interchangeable, individual identities subsumed beneath being ‘divers.’
In nearly every image, the distinguishing features of the performers – equine and human alike – are obscured from the viewer.
Without exact records being kept, we have no access to the identity of these performers.
This image is the only one I found that credited both the horse and the rider at the same time.
Notably, neither the horse nor rider’s face can be seen in the image, thus ultimately still denying them both a traditional identification as individuals.
Instead, nearly every image mediates the human and horse performers as a single embodied yet identity-less entity.
In this photo, the spray of the water nearly creates the illusion that Game’s ‘centaur’ has come to life after all.
Only Sonora Webster-Carver’s story offers any access to the horses as individual animals with unique temperaments and personalities – and five detailed, if brief, descriptions hardly make up for the hundreds of horses who must have performed.
In fact, the diving horse phenomenon offers an interesting multiplicity of mediation.
Not only are the horses mediated via the images captured in still images and on film, but the horses themselves served as the media of the stunt – that is, they are the means by which the human divers performed.
In addition, they are mediated via the exaggeration of their natural behaviors (horses are known to swim and play in water) via training, in order to achieve a horse that will deliberately leap from a 40’ or 60’ tower.
We can also see an alternate form of mediation in this image from 1964, where the media of the stunt provides a platform for promotional campaign media of Lyndon B. Johnson.
One of the most pressing and problematic concerns around the topic of diving horses is the question of abuse. In Sonora Webster-Carver’s account, she steadfastly maintains throughout the narrative that the horses were never harmed, and were healthy and happy. Describing Doc Carver’s show, she writes:
From time to time they got in trouble with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose sometimes overzealous members decided the horses were being mistreated. At such times the SPCA would send a veterinarian to examine them. Each time the vet gave them a clean bill of health. The usual conclusion was that he had never seen healthier, more beautifully kept animals in his life. (Webster-Carver, A Girl and Five Brave Horses)
This narrative, however, is shockingly punctuated by her recitation of a stunt gone wrong. One of their horses, diving rider-less into the sea, was confused by the waves and pull of the tide. She ended up swimming out to sea instead of towards land, and drowned before she could be rescued.
Perhaps, in Webster-Carver’s view, this singular incident was an accident, not abuse, and did not negate decades of otherwise reputedly injury-free horses.
Otherwise, despite hearsay accusations of trapdoors and cattle prods, I could find no reputable sources or evidence of the diving horses being abused – though it seems nearly impossible to believe that such abuses didn’t occur at some point.
The British Pathé Newsreel Archive retains footage of an early American diving horse performance. What is interesting about this reel from 1923 is that the moment that the horse actually leaves the tower is missing, or corrupted.
When contemplating the accusations of tilting platforms, or coercion of the horse, I can’t help but wonder whether in the missing seconds from this reel, perhaps something could have been seen. Either way, definitive answers are lost to the past.
The diving horse show at Steel Pier shut down in the late 1970’s. There have been a few revival attempts since then, even as recently as 2012, but concerns about animal cruelty have prevented the act from gaining traction in the 21st century. But even in the near half-century since the end of the diving horse’s popularity, it has re-emerged in popular culture a few times, something about the act still drawing attention, interest, and imagination.
Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken:
In 1991, Disney released the film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, a movie which was loosely based on the life of Sonora Webster-Carver, and which is perhaps the best-known contemporary iteration of the diving horse phenomenon.
The movie portrays a dramatized and romanticized version of the events surrounding Sonora’s accident, and her relationship with the diving horses.
In Bill Kent’s New York Times article, Webster-Carver’s sister, Arnette French, recounts, “They weren’t so truthful about the facts in that movie, either,’ Mrs. French remembers. ‘My sister was so disappointed in it. I remember her turning to me in the theater after we saw it, and her saying, ‘the only thing true in it was that I rode diving horses, I went blind and I continued to ride for another 11 years.”
In the below clip in particular, the film skews the relationship that Webster-Carver describes between herself and the horses. Sonora, having gone blind, is determined that she can ride her horse Lightning again because “he knows what I’m thinking. And I know what he’s thinking.” This moment evokes the sublime nature of ‘becoming-animal’ that Savvides is critical of, and which is in opposition to the way Webster-Carver recounts her actual experiences with the horse Red Lips after her accident.
(“He Knows What I’m Thinking.”)
The second clip, set against a dramatic soundtrack of music and thunder, offers a moment of intense physical bonding between Sonora and Lightning that seems to act as a sort of sublimated romantic/sexual relationship between woman and horse.
While still arguably an inaccurate interpretation, the ‘Learning Lightning’ clip perhaps gets closest to the one true moment of embodiment that is recounted first-hand by Webster-Carver. Of the first dive after her accident, she writes:
In one swift motion I mounted him and knew I had mounted him perfectly! A shaft of joy shot through me that was akin to pain as I pressed my legs against him tightly out of sheer animal pleasure. The firmness of his flesh, of his muscles, the contours of his body— all these fit into my own as naturally as if they were part of me, and I had the feeling that I had suddenly been made whole. It was as if I had lost an arm or a leg and gotten it back again. (Webster-Carver, A Girl and Five Brave Horses)
Interestingly, this clip is the closest I seemed to come (other than by imagination) to a demonstration of the means by which diving horses may well have been abused. The episode aired in 2000, not long after the brief 1998 diving horse revival at Steel Pier (perhaps brought about by the interest in the Disney film?).
In the episode, while Duncan (the diving horse) is rescued by the Simpsons, the preceding conversation draws a stark line under the reality that many of the horses who used to dive were likely slaughtered after they could no longer perform, or their act was shut down.
In this way, we are left to grapple with the idea that the very mediation which subsumed unique animals and left only ‘diving horse’ behind, was also the means by which they lived, and without the diving horse show by which their owners made a living, many of them were doubtless killed.
The Last Diving Horse?
As far as I have been able to determine, the Magic Forest amusement park in Lake George, NY, has the last remaining diving horse show in the United States. In comparison with the grandiose 60’ or more towers of the Steel Pier heyday, the diving horse at Magic Forest performs riderless, jumping from the relatively moderate height of 9’.
The Magic Forest website is clearly concerned with accusations of animal abuse, as they have a thorough recitation on their website of the ways and means in which Lightning is well cared for – including testimonials from a U. Penn animal behavior psychology professor, as well as a horse veterinarian.
In the above YouTube clip, taken by a visitor to the park, the announcer can be heard to clearly emphasize that the horse is not being forced to perform.
With so much clear public pressure coming to bear around this stunt, I can’t help but wonder if this is the last we will see of diving horses.
In the end, I find I am left with as many, if not more, questions as when I started this project. Theories can offer pieces of a puzzle, but it would be a gross over-simplification to assume that that was all there was to the story. After all, the diving horse existed during a time of great upheaval and change, including the end of the Wild West, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, great civil and women’s rights movements, and the de-popularization of horses from animals of industry, commerce, and war, to household pets. And somehow, during such times, something about this act – a horse and rider, performing for but a few seconds! – proved powerful enough to grip audiences for decades.
- Carver, Sonora Webster. A Girl and Five Brave Horses. Ed. Steve W. Chadde. Kindle ed.
- (No city listed) Pathfinder Books, 2016.
- Game, Ann. “Riding: Embodying the Centaur.” Body & Society 7.4 (2001): 1-12. Print.
- Harraway, Donna J. “When Species Meet.” Posthumanities 3 (2007). Minneapolis: U Minnesota
- Press. Print.
- Kent, Bill. “The Horse Was in Charge.” New York Times 4 May 1997. Web. 10 March 2017.
- Pierson, Melissa Holbrook. Dark Horses and Black Beauties: Animals, Women, a Passion.
- Kindle Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2001.
- “Saddlesore Galactica.” The Simpsons. Writ. Tim Long. Dir. Lance Kramer. 20th Century Fox
- Television, 6 Feb. 2000. Television.
- Savvides, Nikki. “‘Loving-knowing’ women and horses: Symbolic connections, real life
- conflicts and ‘natural horsemanship’.” Humanimalia 3.1 (Fall 2011): 60-76
- Weil, Kari. Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? New York: Columbia University
- Press, 2012. Print.
- Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Dir. Steve Miner. 1991. Walt Disney Pictures. Amazon.com. Web.
- 25 Mar 2017.