Diving Horses.

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This is a repost from March of 2011…


When was the last time you remember even a glimmer of knowing about the diving horses?  At least for me, I think I had seen an image in a LIFE magazine when I was a kid, but I’m sure I never thought about diving horses again.  Until today…


Hubby sent an article to me about the Steel Pier diving horse.

The cogs of my memory wheel moaned into motion as I tried to focus on what I was reading… diving horses?  60′ high platform.  HOLY HECK!  I can hardly dive from a board over the ledge of a swimming pool!  I cannot even imagine diving off of a HORSE, 60′ into that tiny pool!

But, that is exactly what they did…

Here is a link to a video describing the diving horses.

Into the drink…


By all accounts, no horse was ever hurt while diving.  That cannot be said for the humans… This sport was notorious for breaking bones in pretty damsel divers.  The worst human injury was avoided by a head tuck that all later divers adopted – ‘jam your head off to one side of the horse’s neck’.

If you look in almost all of the photos from that time, tucking is exactly what they all did…


Because the Steel Pier pool was 10′ deep.  The horses would touch the bottom after their dive and immediately push off raising their heads and necks fairly violently.  This for sure would result in a broken cheek or nose of a diver who didn’t tuck.

Consequently, to help break less human bones, the tower was lowered to 40′ and then finally to 30′.  But, what got me is that before this show settled at the Steel Pier, it was a traveling show!  How did they dismantle this huge structure and then put it together without major mishaps?  Dunno.  But, they did it.



Yes, the show was shut down by animal activists.  And, really, I’m OK with that because 30′ is just too far for a human to fall from the sky into a small pool on a horse’s back.  Of course I’m sure many horses had their share of nose rotor-rootering, but this whole act was horribly dangerous for the rider.

I mean, if the fall didn’t kill them (which it did only a few times… yikes), the rider dismount under the water could result in various hoof paddle kicks while the horse was scrambling to shore.  Oy.

The most famous accident was when Sonora Carver, the acclaimed diver, and her favorite horse, Patches, slipped on the off ramp.  Sonora said that she threw her own weight forward to make sure the horse didn’t fall backwards to the water.  While concentrating on this, she forgot to shut her eyes and they hit water.  Sonora suffered blood clots in her eyes from the broken blood vessels after the force of the blow.  However, several days after the accident, Sonora went totally blind from the swelling which created retinal separation.

But she kept diving.

Yup, Sonora loved to dive.  So, even blind, she dove for 10 more years.  You can read her book.  It is called, “A Girl and Five Brave Horses”.  She lived for 99 years and passed in 2003.  Sonora was blind for 72 of those 99 years.

Also, the movie, “Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken”, was about her life.  I never knew that.  Now I need to rent it.

As a tidbit, Sonora married Carver’s son.

This is Sonora’s book.


I found a website that had some first hand accounts of watching the diving horses.  Here is an excerpt:

Best of all was Dimah the Diving Horse, named after Steel Pier owner Mr. Hamid, but spelled backwards.
‘Dimah was a beautiful jet-black filly. Her rider, a pretty young woman, stood on top of a high diving platform waving to the crowd as the announcer called our attention to the small water tank.
“Ladies and Gentleman, Dimah the Wonder Horse is going to dive into this small tank of water. Her rider Miss Olive Gelnaw will guide Dimah during her sixty-foot drop in to the tank. Now we need you to be very quiet, it takes all of her concentration to get it right, or they will miss the tank and fall to their death in the ocean.”
‘The crowd grew silent. Dimah, standing at the bottom of the ramp, was released from her trainer and trotted up the long ramp to the top of the diving platform, and her awaiting rider. Miss Gelnaw, standing on a side railing, sprung effortlessly over to the filly’s back landing just behind the harness. She took hold of the leather strap cinched up around Dimah’s huge girth, before making the big jump.
‘We held our breath as the filly walked to the edge of the platform and looked out over the crowd. Just then a sea gull flew by catching her attention. She lifted her head and sniffed the air, curling her upper lip over her nose. It looked as if she were smiling at us. In a blink of an eye, she slid her two front legs down the ramp, and jumped off the platform. Down she came!
“Sp–lash!” Most of the water in the tank came rushing up in a huge wave, spilling over the sides of the tank, leaving it less than half full. The crowd went wild; Dimah and her rider did a perfect dive. They emerged from the tank and took a bow, the filly’s coat wet and shiny, gleamed in the sun as they led her back to her stall.
“Wow, I want to do that when I grow up!” I said



In her book, Sonora refutes that these horses were made to jump against their will.  She said they all loved it.

I found that difficult to believe (as did many animal welfare people) until Sonora followed that thought with:

“Some people say they must have forced the horses to do what they did. Sonora told me many times the last thing anyone would want was to be up on a tower with a horse that did not want to be there.”

That kinda makes more sense than them forcing the horses to do this.  I mean, really, she has a point… I’ve been places where a horse didn’t want to be and they really let you know.  I cannot imagine being with any of my horses on top of that tower…  No human would put themselves 60′ up on the air on a rickety tower with a horse – if the horse was into it.  ‘Nuff said.

This is not the Steel Pier but an interesting shot nonetheless


Sonora insisted that the horses lived well.  In fact, I read a quote from Sonora’s neice:

Sonora was my Aunt. This was the best clip I have ever seen of her as? a young woman. I was so nice to hear speak as well. The horse she is with is Red Lips..He was her favorite horse.”

Dr. W. F. Carver came up with the idea of horse diving and he was making huge money off of his show.  He knew the horses were the show and therefore the horses lived well.

Sonora’s sister, Annette, also joined the show.  Here is what Annette said about the welfare of the horses:

”What impressed me was how Dr. Carver cared for the horses,” she said. ”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.”

They say Carver and the girls loved the horses…


The original diving horse was Dr. Carver’s own horse, Silver King.   They accidentally took  a plunge off of a bridge into a raging river.  The horse dove in well and emerged even better as he gracefully swam to shore and up the bank.  This is what gave Carver the idea.

He then constructed the tower on which he put his daughter, Lorena.   Here is what she had to say:

Lorena said her horses loved to jump, often making it difficult to get them to wait to build suspense before jumping. Much depended on the horse, with some leaping immediately off the platform while some took up to 5 minutes to look around. The horse Klatawah (Indian for “go away” or “go to h*ll”), would often paw with his hoof as many times as he felt before diving, a remnant of a pawing-his-age act he had performed. When the crowd was small, Klatawah would make a “few lazy scrapes” and dive from a “reclining” position, but he would prance and show off when the crowd was large.

“I felt his muscles tense as his big body sprang out and down, then had an entirely new feeling. It was a wild, almost primitive feel, that only comes with complete freedom of contact with the earth. Then I saw the water rushing up at me, and the next moment we were in the tank.”

Annette explained why she dove for so long – even after her sister was blinded – and why Sonora continued to dive after her accident:

“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.”

Up the ramp


The most famous diving horse was, Red Lips.   This was the horse who was diving with Sonora during the tragic accident.  The others are: Apollo, Dimah, Duchess of Lightning (or Lightning), Gamal, Gordonel,  John the Baptist, Judas,  Klatawah, Lorgah, Powderface,  Pure as Snow (or Snow), Shiloh and Silver King.

Sonora with Red Lips.


There was one horse lost – the very famous and beloved Diving Horse, Lightening.  Here is the story:

“Lightning, Sonora’s beloved diving horse, was practice-diving riderless at a tower on a pier. The show people wanted to see if the show could be done successfully into the ocean. Lightning jumped beautifully, then became confused and swam out toward sea. She became tired gave up, and went under. Lifeguards caught up to her and buoyed her up. She was brought back to shore, but couldn’t be resuscitated.”

Stoopid humans.

Notice the head tuck…


The show was closed in 1978.  At that time, Gamal was 26 and Shiloh was 9.  They were purchased by the The Fund for Animals.  Gamal lived privately for 10 years with Cynthia Branigan (one of her rescuers).   Shiloh lived many years on The Black Beauty Ranch.  Her daughter still lives there – or so it is said.

You can read about Gamal in Cleveland Amory’s book Ranch of Dreams.

Lorena Carver and one of the last diving horses


I paused one video a few times and pieced together what it was like to do this type of dive.   Yikes!  The horse literally ran up the ramp and the rider, who was waiting up top, would hop on – I’m not joking – as the horse went by.  Either the horse would propel himself off or hang there and climb over the edge slowly.

I don’t know which would be worse.

I guess if you are blind like Sonora, it might actually be a good vocation since you would only be thrilled and not terrified.

Horse runs up the ramp

This is what you see running towards you

No worries, we are 60′ up on a tower with a running horses – now hop on!

Don’t mess up!

Here we go!

And the momentum takes you over…


There is a modern day diving horse.  His name is Lightening (on purpose and in deference to) and he dives at the Magic Forest Amusement Park in upstate NY.  Click the photo below to watch him dive 9’ into a 14’ deep and fairly large pool (in comparison to the Steel Pier).

Lightening. Click to watch his video.


Here is a link to a newsreel from way back when…  Obviously the announcer is not too familiar with the horse world, but if you look at the reel, truly, there is nothing MAKING that horse do what he is doing.

I’m glad they stopped the show but imagine if you were one of the divers and you could stand up at a dinner party and shout, “I rode a horse off of a 60’ platform into a pool of water in front of hundreds of people– often.”

I think the room would go silent…and everyone would gather around to hear the tale.

Annette and Sonora … the diving didn’t seem to hurt them at all!


HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!











HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth... if you like this, please pass it around!

22 comments have been posted...

  1. Donald L French

    For Erin Allen. Erin; The horses were started learning from a height of 4 feet. Any horse who balked constantly would be sold. The carrot and stick approach was used. Some horses would need a push that first time, but once they associated the dive with the treat, they need no pushing. The height of the training would be gradually raised. The highest dive height was 60 feet at one time, but it turned out to be much to dangerous, mainly for the rider. For most of the life of the act the height was 40 feet.
    And usually the traveling show did not build a tank. A 10 or 12 foot hole was dug with a graded ramp
    one end. The hole was lined with canvas and then filled with water.

  2. Donald L French

    The very first diving horse rider was William F. “Doc” Carver. At first the show was done indoors, and could not have been done from more than 15 or 20 feet. The first female rider was Lorena Carver.

  3. Donald L French

    Arnette Webster French died in 2000, and Sonora Webster Carver died in 2003, aged 99

  4. Donald L French

    My mistake. My mother’s name was Arnette Webster French

  5. Donald L French

    I saw that you were perplexed by the huge job of dismantling of the diving horse tower. Well that did not do that at all. An advance man would go to the next town or city and contract with a local firm to build a completely new tower each time. Because of the cost, the traveling act would only to long term venues, such as state fairs, which typically would run for a month. And this is from the horses mouth. Both Sonora Webster Carver and her sister, my mother, Arnette Webster Carver were riders.

  6. Michelle Bax

    I would also like some help in finding out the girls names who rode these horses..I just recently found out that 2 of my Granfathers sisters were horse divers for a small show. They were from Nebraska.

  7. Amy

    Innings Sonora Webster has passed. However does anyone know if or when her sister Annette French has passed?

  8. Roger Belanger

    I remember when I was about 9 years old in Fort Kent Maine that a man and horse team would appear during some of the summers of early fifties to put on this act. The act was done next to the new community swimming pool. The build a makeshift water tank and a wooden ramp for the horse to climb up to the rim of the tank. When the horse and rider were ready to jump they would spray some flammable liquid on the water and light it up creating fingers of flame across the water. the horse splashing into the water instantly quenched the flames with spectators erupting in applause. I was a delightful show for this small town.
    I think the rider went by the name of peter’s

  9. Sunnie

    Incredibly fascinating! I’ve never heard of diving horses before today. I can’t imagine how terrifying/exciting that would have been! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Kathy Sutton

    I am glad it stopped too. They say the horses loved it. Did the horse tell them that? Looks to me like the horse really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Sure, the big leap was probably based on trust but that doesn’t make it right. Someone posted that a few of the horses were sent to slaughter. Some things never change. When they have no use they become disposable.

  11. Kathleen Smith

    Movie about diving horses called : Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Fabulous Hollywood account of the giant pier industry. Came out in 1991. Worth the time to view it.

  12. hidesertgirl

    You must include in this blog that Shiloh, Gamal and Powderface were sold at auction for slaughter. The fate of Powderface cannot be verified. Shiloh and Gamal were saved by The Animal Fund. The Animal Fund went to the auction and secured the winning bid for the horses otherwise they would have gone to the slaughterhouse.

    Reference: The Miami News, Jan. 8, 1980
    The Evening Independent, Jan. 8, 1980
    Reading Eagle News Jan. 12, 1980

  13. Erin allen

    I have had horses all of my life, trust me when I say that if a horse doesn’t want to do something there is not one force on earth that will make him do it. I have trained horses for a few years now as well. If the horse isn’t open to doing something no amount of training will change that. If the horse trusts you to keep him safe he will do almost anything for you, butit is still of his own free will. I think diving is a wonderful thing just because of the amount of trust it takes for not only the horse but also the rider. There has to be annincrediblw bond there and I admire that whole heartedly.

  14. Deborah Slagle

    Per this news article from today, the Diving Horses are returning to the Steel Pier.


    “The diving horse attraction that brought international notoriety to the Steel Pier will return as part of a revitalization plan for the 1,000-feet long structure, its owners said during a presentation today to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.”

    = /

    This will get interesting.

  15. Lisa Porter

    My Grandmother was Olive Gelnaw, one of the divers. We lost her on Saturday 11/12/11. She was an amazing woman who lived life to the fullest and was very proud of the time she spent diving these horses. She spent many years of her life loving and raising horses among many other animals. She was also an artist and wrighter and I feel blessed to have shared time on this earth with her. Thank you for hooring her memory.

  16. Jim Warne

    Very nice article!!! Do you know or know of anyone that might have the names of any of the young ladies that “jumped” with the horses during the 1907-1908 period when the show was traveling. Believe at least one called the “The Girl in Red”; while at Las vegas, New Mexico… maybe also San Antonio and El Paso. Possibly my relative… Thank you, Jim

  17. Janie

    I am so glad you did a story on Sonora. I always Loved that movie (as scary as it sounds like it is to do…and dangerous) My farrier’s wife met Sonora a while ago…

    Horses know danger. Either they wanted to do it, or they were so bonded to their humans they did it to please….

    Actually? In the movie the horses running up the ramps appear to be “on a mission”, and very determined…

    Great story…

  18. collada

    I don’t think you can make a horse do ANYTHING he/she does not want to do. I remember seeing “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” when it first came out. I wish they still had the steel pier as it is definitely something I would do for a great thrill! :-)

  19. Casey O'Connor

    I dunno. I mean, sure, in the videos of them jumping once they’re trained, you don’t see anyone forcing them. But where are the training films? I’m glad it’s stopped.

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