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Diving Horses and the Real Sonora Carver

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[smile] Many of you have probably seen "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken," the movie about the girl who rides diving horses during the Great Depression. Sonora Webster Carver was a real character, and she wrote a book called, "A Girl and Five Brave Horses." It's a rather hard book to find in a library, and even harder if you want to buy a copy of it for yourself, but it's definitely worth reading if you can get your hands on it.

While the movie did stick fairly close to the real story, there are some significant differences. For those of you who have seen the film and would like to know more about Sonora and the diving horses, here are some interesting bits of trivia:

Sonora was not an orphan, and she didn't run away to join Dr. Carver's act. What happened was that her mother had seen the diving act, and saw Dr. Carver's advertisement for a diving girl. She told Sonora that she thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity for her. At first, Sonora was leery, but when she saw her first diving horse show, she was immediately hooked. Sonora was 21 when she first began riding diving horses in 1924.

Al Carver had a sister named Lenora, who also was part of the diving act. Sonora's sister, Arnette, who was briefly shown in the film, also had a long and successful career as a diving girl. The character of Marie, however was completely fictional.

Sonora and Al married before Sanora went blind, not afterwards. They had no children. Sonora was 27 when she lost her sight in 1931, and the real experience is somewhat less dramatic than in the book. During one dive she felt that the horse was jumping off-balance, so she leaned backwards to even out his weight. As a result, instead of diving into the water going at a forward angle with her eyes closed, she wound up hitting the surface face first. Apparently, on the way down, she was so mesmerized with watching the horse's shadow on the water that she didn't close her eyes in time. However, Sonora failed to go to a doctor right away, so by the time she finally did (after several more dives) there was too much hemorraging in her eyes for her sight to be saved. Yet, as in the film, Sonora never gave in to self-pity and was resolved to live life as normally as she could. After getting a helmet made with a special lens to protect her eyes (in hopes that maybe someday her eyesight could be restored)she dived blind for 11 years, five of which were kept secret from the public.

There are two stories about how the diving horse act was created. One was that Dr. Carver was riding home one stormy night, when a bridge he was crossing over collapsed. Dr. Carver hung onto one of the bridge supports while his horse leaped into the river. The other story describes a play that Dr. Carver was putting on in Australia, where a horse had to leap off a bridge into a river. Apparently, every night a new horse had to be produced for the stunt, because after a horse had done the act once, it was too terrified to do it again. However, Dr. Carver's own horse, Silver King, apparently didn't mind doing it over and over again. From one of these two incidents, the idea for a new act was born.

In the early years of the diving act, the Carvers travelled all around the country. They were usually split into two groups, putting on their acts at state and county fairs and amusement parks. In the late 1920s, after Dr. Carver's death, the act was settled permanently at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.

Red Lips and Lightening, the two horses in the movie, were real Carver diving horses; however, their stories and circumstances were different than those of their film counterparts. Red Lips was actually a paint. He was considered an outlaw horse that no one could do anything with, and he enjoyed tearing things apart. He would rip blankets off his back if left unattended, and the first time Sonora saw him, he ripped her dress right off of her! Yet in spite of this, Red Lips became a superb diving horse, and did his job well for many years. When World War II started, Sonora and Al stopped their diving act and retired Red Lips to live with some friends in Texas. He survived until 1954.

Lightening was not an Arabian, but a large, dapple grey grade mare. She was one of the most beautiful and skilled of all the Carver's Diving horses, but she met with a very tragic end. In July 1927, Lenora and Al were at Venice Beach, California, with two of the horses, while Sonora and Dr. Carver were travelling through the midwest with the other three. At Venice Beach, instead of having the horses dive into a tank, it was part of the Carvers' contract to have them dive into the ocean instead. The horses had all successfully done the ocean dives on the east coast, but they had never dived in the Pacific before, where the surf conditions were different. Lightening made a riderless dive off the Big Lick Pier during a practice session - the last one she would ever make. She headed for the shore, but, confused by the waves, she turned around and headed for the open sea. Several people jumped into a boat and rowed out trying to lead her back in, but the mare became confused and continued to swim even faster away from the shore. Before very long, she became exhausted and drowned. The Carvers were devastated, and they didn't do any more ocean dives after that.

In the book, Sonora talks about some of the other Carver Diving Horses:

One was curiously named "John the Baptist." Another was called "Judas," for his unpredictable temperament. He got his name because when Lenora was riding him one day, he managed to dump her into the only mud puddle around, and she yelled out, "That horse is a Judas!"

And then there was a thoroughbred named Klatawah, who was one of the most interesting equine characters. Klatawah reacted with much more excitment toward large crowds than smaller ones. He also had one very annoying habit. In previous days, when he dived without a rider, Dr. Carver taught him to count out his age by tapping his hoof against the kick-off board just before jumping. Well, before long, both Dr. Carver and Al got tired of this stunt, but Klatawah kept it up anyway, banging his hoof on the board as many times as he felt like doing. Sonora hated this because she kept getting jerked around alot every time he did this.

Although there was, and still is, a lot of debate about the humaneness of the diving act, in the book, the Carver horses were very much beloved and extremely well-cared for. There were animal-rights people who complained about the possible mistreatment of the horses and would send a vet over to check them out. The vets, after examinations, would always say that they had never seen healthier, better-cared for horses.

The horses were never forced to jump while being trained, and Dr. Carver never used a whip on them, nor would he allow anyone else to. When a horse was first being taught to dive, he (or she) would stand on a low platform, and someone would stand on the other side of the tank, holding the end of a long line, kindly encouraging them to jump. When the horse got comfortable with diving off the low platform, they would then be tried out on the high platform. However, if after a reasonable period of training time, the horse was still afraid to jump, or dived in a way that was unsafe for itself or its rider, the horse would be sold. Only horses that really liked to dive were kept.

Sonora Carver died in September 2003. She was 99.

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I thought the word was d-R-iving horses.

They dove off cliffs !?!

Interesting read ! Thanks !

[big Grin]

P.S. [Eek!]


[ 09-26-2007, 02:50 PM: Message edited by: Cactus Rose ]

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that was an amazing movie. its kind of neat though that some of the horses really enjoyed doing that and the people weren't afraid either. i know i'd be scared to death!

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