A Girl And Five Brave Horses
Sonora Carter, as told to Elizabeth Land
1961, Doubleday & Company
Wanted: Attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires to travel.
It is 1932, and
To my everlasting memory I saw she was dapple-gray, her forequarters wholly white, her flanks heavily marbled with gray. She had a white mane, which was flung to one side, and a white tail like a plume to the flow, and she looked as proud as any duchess, yet full of strength and power. I might have guessed, had I not already known, that her name was the Duchess of Lightning. I, who had loved horses since I was old enough to know what they were, was completely spellbound. I thought she was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen in my life or was ever likely to see.
Klatawah's hoofs hit the ramp with a crash. The whole tower vibrated and shook as he rushed up at me, and I knew in a split second he would be going past. Then he was there and I grabbed for the harness and swung myself into place.... Finally, however, he gave the audience one last look, then he clattered down onto the kickoff board with an almost running motion and immediately kicked off. I felt his muscles tense as his big body sprang out and down, and then had an entirely new feeling. It was a wild, almost primitive thrill that comes only with complete freedom of contact with the earth. Then I saw the water rushing up at me, and the next moment we were in the tank.
The act undergoes various changes, including the tragic loss of Lightning in the Pacific, and
The narrative is quick and clear, with helpful descriptions of the human and horse training, and an insight into the life of the performers on the famous Steel Pier. In one riveting scene, a blind
Of course, the diving horse act was always controversial - the idea of setting a horse up to fall 40 feet just sounds bad.
Training is a length process, taking weeks and sometimes months, during which a horse progresses from the low tower to the high just as a rider does. In the beginning a lead rope is put on the horse, attached to his diving harness and long enough to reach out to the front of the tank. Here the trainer takes his position, coaxing the horse to come off the twelve-foot tower and dive into the tank. This he does by tugging gently and constantly urging in a calm, sure voice. Sometimes a horse simply refuses to be budged by the tugs or the voice, and if he continues to do so over a reasonable length of time, all efforts are abandoned and he is sold.
Klatawah - chestnut sorrel Thoroughbred gelding, 1250lbs, perfect conformation
John the Baptist - light brown gelding with roan spots, almost roan ears, 1400lbs
The Duchess of Lightning - grey mare
Snowy - grey mare
Judas - white gelding with roan ears and roan spots
Apollo - buckskin gelding who didn't work out
Red Lips - brown and white paint gelding with blue eyes
Silver King - former horse
Powder Face - former horse
King Tut - turtle
There was, of course, a film based on this book, 1991's Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, which Carter didn't particularly like (understandable, as it discarded 99% of the actual story for a fiction that was not more film-friendly but was inferior; predictable and flattened . There is also a children's book based on the diving horses, Girl On The High-Diving Horse by Linda Oatman High (2005). And Patsey Gray wrote a fiction book on the topic, 1960's Diving Horse.
Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken at IMDB
The Girl On The High-Diving Horse at Amazon
Diving Horse at Amazon
About the Author
Sonora Webster Carter was born in 1904 and died in 2003 at the age of 99. Her obituary ran in the New York Times.