For 50 years, Atlantic City’s Steel Pier was home to a fantastical attraction—horse diving. In the early half of the 20th century, horse diving was a daredevil sport. Riders would lead horses up a ramp to a specially-designed diving board. After several moments of suspense, the horse—with the rider on its back—would leap from a 40 to 70-foot diving platform into the ocean or pool below.
The sport originated in the 1880s when William “Doc” Carver, best known as a sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, crossed a bridge over Nebraska’s Platte River on horseback. His horse jumped off the bridge into the waters below while Carver held on. The diving horse franchise developed out of Carver’s accident and he began training horses to dive. Although not a rider himself, Carver’s daughter, Lorena, became the first diving horse rider.
Outside of Atlantic City, Diving horses found an audience on the boardwalks of popular tourist cities and Carver had two diving teams touring the country. The sport’s most famous diver was Sonora Carver (also the wife of Carver’s son Al). In the 1920s and 30s she regularly performed at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. In 1931, she lost her vision when her horse dove off balance and she hit the water face first, resulting in detached retinas. Even sightless, Sonora continued to dive for another 11 years. Her story became the subject of the 1991 Disney film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.
In the 1970s, animal rights activists protested the treatment of the horses and the sport’s popularity declined, ending in 1978. What remains of the strange, death-defying attraction are the amateur snapshots and press photographs of horses leaping from the dive. In photographs from the Library of Congress, LIFE, and other collections and archives, the animals and their riders are shown perched above a crowd of spectators, gracefully suspended in mid-air, and plunging into the water below.