For nineteen years, Sonora Webster Carver made her living on the back of a flying horse.
Clad in a trim bathing suit, Sonora climbed a forty-foot wooden tower and when a galloping horse charged up the adjoining ramp, she jumped on its back and the two would sail through the air, eventually landing in a tank filled with twelve feet of water.
The notion of diving horses was developed by Doc Carver, a sharpshooter who toured in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After he left the Wild West Show, Doc took his own circus show on the road, featuring the captivating horse divers.
Sonora was born in 1904 to a working-class family in Waycross Georgia, and at nineteen years old, she was looking for some adventure and a way out of a life of what she called “genteel poverty.”
After seeing an ad placed by Doc Carver calling for “a girl who could swim and dive, and was willing to travel,” Sonora felt she’d found her ticket. Her sister Arnette followed in Sonora’s footsteps and at fifteen also joined the show.
Both Sonora and Arnette loved the thrill of sailing in the air on horseback. The girls reveled in their jobs and in their fame, and for Sonora, the adventure also led to love and marriage. Doc Carver’s son Albert, who took over the show after Doc’s death in 1927, was smitten with the feisty horse diver and he and Sonora married in 1928.
Although horse diving by nature is a dangerous occupation, Arnette, in an interview, said the secret to avoid injury was to “keep your head tucked down to one side, so that when the horse raised his head as he jumped up at the bottom of the pool, you wouldn’t get smacked in the face.”
Unfortunately for Sonora, she couldn’t avoid injury all together. In 1931 while diving her horse Red Lips off Steel Pier in Atlanta, Georgia, Sonora hit the water off balance with her eyes open. Both retinas detached resulting in blindness. But the loss of sight didn’t deter the amazing young woman. She continued for eleven more years and went on to become the most famous horse diver in history.
Horse diving continued until 1978 when the SPCA grew concerned over the safety and well-being of the horses. According to Arnette, Doc’s horses were always treated well, and no horse was ever injured while on his watch.