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June 12, 2022 3 min read

One of Atlantic City’s most astonishing attractions once made quite the splash! The daring diving horses astounded audiences for decades along New Jersey’s famed Steel Pier, plunging from platforms upwards of 40 feet in the air as many as four times a day.

The seemingly death-defying stunt originated in Texas (because of course it did) led by the dentist-turned-showman “Doctor” William Frank Carver. Legend has it, the extraordinary act was discovered by accident in 1881 when Carver was riding his horse across the Platte River in Nebraska when the bridge gave out, sending them plummeting into the water below. When they both survived the dive, he had the idea to try training horses to do it as entertainment. Carver returned to Texas and enlisted the help of his son Al to train and care for the horses, and his daughter Lorena was said to have been the first rider, though Doc’s eventual daughter-in-law, Sonora Webster Carver, is widely considered the first and most famous of the daring diving girls.

In the beginning, Doc’s diving horses were part of a traveling show, with two teams performing in different cities, such as San Antonio where he would charge as much as 50-cents to see the spectacle. It wasn’t until after Doc died (of poor health and a broken heart following the drowning death of his favorite horse) that Al and company moved the act to Atlantic City in 1928 where it would secure its spot on Steel Pier for decades. 

Miraculously (and allegedly), not a single injury to a horse was reported during the entire span of the show. Humans didn’t escape quite as unscathed, averaging about two injuries a year. Most were minor – bruises and broken bones – but Sonora suffered detached retinas from an unbalanced dive that caused her to hit the water face first with her eyes open and resulted in a permanent loss of sight; she continued to dive for another 11 years after going blind.

The act was forced to shutter in 1978. Though some historians claim the reason was financial, the more universally understood cause for the cessation of the show was an uprising of animal rights activists deeming the act unnatural and unnecessarily cruel.

Arnette, sister of Sonora Webster Carver, claimed during an interview that “Wherever we went, the S.P.C.A. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) 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”.

A brief attempt to revive the act in 1994 was again thwarted by protests and petitions from folks declaring it cruel and unfair treatment of the horses.  

Though PETA and other animal rights activists have ensured the attraction will remain a thing of the past, there is one last legendary horse, Lightning, still doing dives* in Magic Forest Park in New York State. Unlike his fellow entertaining equines of yesteryears, Lightning only dives from a platform about 9 feet in the air, and he only dives twice a day for about two months out of the year. Don’t worry, he’s in it for the applause; “[Lightning] seems to enjoy the crowd and the cheering – especially the affection of children.”

It was this incredible imagery that initially sparked inspiration for the entire Traveling Show collection; something about such a stunning creature suspended mid-air ignited a sense of splendor and magic. That original black-and-white image was pinned to Cheryl’s design wall for months as she concepted this summer collection, it was only appropriate we paid it – and all the horses and divers that made splash after splash – homage in this season’s signature tee, aptly named True Courage.

*The most recent information available was from 2020; it is unverified whether Lightning is alive and performing today.

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