Horse Diving: 21 Vintage Photos Of The Cruel, Forgotten “Sport”

Published July 31, 2017
Updated June 23, 2021

Not even 50 years ago, crowds in tourist spots like Atlantic City were lining up to watch diving horses perform death-defying stunts.

Horse Belly
Horse Platform
Carrot Incentive
Carrot Reward
Horse Diving: 21 Vintage Photos Of The Cruel, Forgotten “Sport”
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The idea of throwing oneself off a 70-foot diving platform is enough to keep most people firmly planted on the ground below. Throwing yourself off said platform while on the back of a horse is a stunt only for the truly daring and crazy.

That's exactly what some people did though in the early half of the 20th century in a sport known as diving horses. The peculiar sport that appealed only to the most extreme of thrill-seekers, involved climbing onto the back of a horse and then coaxing it to leap off a platform, plunging head-first into a diving pool far below.

Horse diving first emerged in the 1880s as an idea by William "Doc" Carver, a man better known for performing in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show as a sharpshooter than as an Olympic diver. Carver allegedly came up with the idea when crossing a bridge over Nebraska's Platte River. With Carver still on, the horse jumped off the bridge into the water below, inspiring the idea of diving horses.

While Carver himself didn't see a future participating in the sport, he trained horses and convinced his daughter to take up the practice.

The new sport would an audience on the boardwalks of popular tourist cities like Atlantic City, New Jersey, where crowds were eager for live entertainment. Sonora Carver, the wife of William Carver's son, Al, would become the sport's most famous diver, regularly performing at Atlantic City's Steel Pier in the 1920s and 1930s. She would eventually lose her vision from a diving accident, though her career would inspire a book and Disney movie, Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken.

While injuries did happen, it was more often the horse's rider who was at risk than the horse. Former diving horse rider Sarah Detwiler Hart, recalled just how much trust there needed to between rider and horse: "They went when they were ready... I wouldn't want to be on a horse that was agitated. My life depended on that horse doing that in a calm way, so there was no electrical devices or trap doors or anything like that during my time."

By the 1970s, diving horses had begun to lose its popularity with animal rights activists demanding an end to the practice. There was however, a small push to bring the diving horses back to Atlantic City in 2012, but it was quickly snuffed out by animal welfare advocates.

The only horse diving exhibition still in operation today is located in Lake George, New York.

To see what diving horses looked like back in 1923, view the video below:

Now that you've seen diving horses entertain the masses of the past, take a look at how miniature horses are changing lives for the better in the present. Of course, horses aren't the only animals with a history in show business, check out these vintage photos from the golden days of the circus.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice holds a Bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with more than 10 years of experience in writing and editing, during which time his work has appeared on Heavy, Uproxx, and Buzzworthy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Stice, Joel. "Horse Diving: 21 Vintage Photos Of The Cruel, Forgotten “Sport”.", July 31, 2017, Accessed April 21, 2024.