The bizarre attraction of horse diving in Atlantic City
In the early part of the 20th Century, a very unusual phenomenon started to develop in Atlantic City. On the Steel Pier, horses were being launched off a 40 or 60 foot platform, and into a pool of water usually just 12 feet deep.
Atlantic City, which opened 1898, was once America's most popular amusement attraction. The act of diving horses was originally found in travelling circuses, until Atlantic City bought it into the lime light in the 1920's. It soon became the mane attraction at the Pier and crowds would gather to marvel at the death defying stunts.
The people who rode the horses claimed it was safe, and reported only a few broken bones each year. One of the most well known horse divers Sonora Webster Carvey, who made her first dive at just 15 years old, had her story immortalized in the 1991 Disney film Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken. Sadly, in 1931, she was blinded after a blow to the head which detached her retinas. Despite this, she continued to dive horses for another 11 years.
Other horse divers from the time spoke of being "the stars of the Boardwalk. Everybody had to see the diving horse. That was what everybody remembered." Annette French, a horse diver, said the animals lived "the life of Riley" and that the horses were well looked after.
Surprisingly, despite concerns about the welfare of the horses, horse diving continued until as late as 1978, and was then only abandoned because the pier had fallen into a state of disrepair so bad that it was shut down.
The stunt was briefly reintroduced at Atlantic City in 1993 before being shut down after only 2 months, due to protests from animal welfare activists. They then recently announced their intention to revive it as part of the refurbishment of Atlantic City, which was met with fierce opposition. These protests were successful in stopping the reintroduction of horse diving. Antony Catanoso, whose family owns the pier, gave the following statement: "We just felt that since Atlantic City is moving forward, we should move forward with it. We should create new memories for visitors instead of recreating old ones."