She was born in Waycross, Georgia in 1904, one of six kids. When she was 20 her mother saw a job posting in the local paper; Wanted: Attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires to travel. See Dr. W.F. Carver, Savannah Hotel. She applied and got the job, a job that changed her life.
Sonora Webster joined The Great Carver Act in 1923. William “Doc” Carver was a former dentist and one-time partner of Buffalo Bill Cody and his traveling Wild West Show. Carver was a world champion marksman whose shooting skills were highly acclaimed. The two had a falling out and Doc Carver formed his own troupe.
Doc had a particular idea for a featured act, certain to draw big crowds. A Diving Horse inspired from personal experience – attempting to outrun outlaws, he started over a bridge which gave way throwing he and his horse into the stream below. In 1907 The Great Carver Show opened at the Electric Park in San Antonio, Texas. People came from miles, eager to pay 50 cents to watch a troupe member ride a horse off a four-story platform.
When Sonora joined the show she quickly became the star. When Doc died in 1927, show management was taken over by his son, Al. Sonora also became the shining star of Al’s world, they married in 1928. In that same year, Sonora’s sister Arnette joined becoming a horse diver herself. The family tired of traveling and the show settled as a permanent fixture at Atlantic City, N.J.’s Steel Pier in 1929.
IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL COME
A 40-foot wooden ramp was built on the pier. The diving horse ran up a carpeted ramp while the rider waited at the top, mounting as the horse ran by to take the plunge together. When the horses landed in the tank, which was about 11 feet deep, they would go down until their hooves touched the bottom and then push off to get back to the surface. The horses often threw their heads up to help with momentum. The diving girl had to make sure she kept her head to the side or she would surface with a bloody nose, black eyes and/or broken cheekbones and collar bones. Each diving girl claimed that at some point in their career, they had broken several bones from not being positioned properly at the time of a dive. While the show was dangerous, no horse was ever injured. Sonora herself suffered one of the worst injuries in the history of the act.
In 1931, her horse Red Lips slipped while attempting a dive and fell nearly straight down. To avoid him flipping over, Sonora sat back as far as she could and put as much of her weight on his rear. When they hit the water, Sonora hit with her eyes wide open.
When she returned to her dressing room, she began to see spots in her vision, but since there was no pain, she waved it off and continued diving. Her eyesight continued to grow worse and eventually doctors diagnosed her with broken blood vessels in her eyes. Those led to blood clots and eventually detached retinas. At the age of 27, Sonora was completely blind. But even blindness could not keep Sonora off of her horses. She continued diving for 11 years the audience never knew of her impairment.
Later when questioned about her accident she replied. “Bad things happen to people; but you can’t let them get you down.”
END OF AN ERA
The diving horse show continued throughout the Great Depression and World War II., but it became difficult for Al and Sonora to find people to maintain the tower and care for the horses. The show stopped running in 1942.
Al and Sonora moved to New Orleans. Al died sometime in the 1960’s. Sonora learned Braille and worked as a Dictaphone typist until she retired in 1979.
Sonora wrote her autobiography, “A Girl and Five Brave Horses” in 1961. Walt Disney Pictures bought the rights and produced a film “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” in 1991 loosely based on Sonora’s memoir. Sonora attended the premiere and hated the film. She said they got one thing right and that was she dove horses and dove blind for 11 years.
Sonora Webster Carver died at the age of 99 on September 20, 2003.
Asked why her sister continued to diving after her accident, her sister Arnette explained. “The Disney movie made a big deal about having the courage to go on riding after she lost her sight. 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.”
Horse-diving continued until 1978, when Steel Pier had deteriorated so badly that it had to be closed. The horse divers were a popular draw for decades, the riders heralded for their bravery.
Photography Courtesy Public Domain
Sonora Webster Takes a Dive
Recollections from the Audience
Excerpt from “The Diving Horses of Atlantic City” by Susan MacDonald
The High Diving Horses were always my favorite. I must have seen at least six of them over the years. They each had their own style of diving. One would wait a good five minutes before jumping – he would hold his head up and watch the seagulls fly by. Some dove with their front legs straight out, while others tucked up their legs as if they were going over a jump. One horse would twist in the air and land on his side, making it dangerous for his rider.
The riders (all women) would suffer one or two broken bones a year. Most of the injuries came from getting out of the pool of paddling hooves. They made it look easy, but it wasn’t. Years ago a rider by the name of Sonora Carver (in the late 1920’s) went blind from a bad impact with the water. The jump was sixty feet at that time, but was then lowered to forty.
Another horse, I think his name was Patches, drew quite an audience. After making so many jumps he no longer waited for his rider. He would charge up the ramp to the tower and take a running jump off the diving board, leaving the rider behind. A couple of the girls tried to leap on him as he flew by, only to be left sailing through the air mount-less. One day, he got up so much speed he almost overshot the pool. Needless to say, they retired him. One year they even had a high diving mule.
A Poem About the Diving Horses
The Last Diving Horse in America
by Brian Beatty
How is anyone supposed to know
what goes through the head of a horse
climbing into a rickety wooden chute
that appears the last one of its kind, too?
We’re just another paying audience
waiting for an old-fashioned show,
our dumb phone cameras at the ready.
Without video, nobody in the world
would believe how it did a little dance
and took a bow before it jumped.