Friday, May 22, 2009

A Girl And Five Brave Horses (Sonora Carter, 1961)

It's Memorial Day weekend, and the kickoff to summer. In honor of the summer season, here's a horsie memoir from the heyday of Atlantic City, that faded queen of American shore resorts.

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 Sonora is a young high school dropout working her first job in Savanah, Georgia, when her flighty mother shows her this newspaper ad and urges her to take the job. At first unenthusiastic, Sonora falls in love with the diving horse act after attending a showing.

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.

Sonora joins the act and falls in love with diving, with the thrill and freedom of plunging through space. That addiction carries her through her rough training, and the eccentricities of her first boss. She learns how to ride the easiest dive, the extreme plunge, aboard the chestnut Thoroughbred Klatawah:

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 Sonora falls for a replacement, a paint gelding they name Red Lips and who proves instantly successful at diving. It will be aboard Red Lips, who tends to the dramatic, hard-to-ride nosedive, that Sonora's face hits the water hard cause enough damage to her eyes. Blind, and depressed, she continues with the act (by now, she's fallen in love with and married the boss) and eventually returns to diving, although now she must do everything by sound. This continues for 11 years; the act eventually ends in 1942, as gasoline restrictions and a lack of manpower overwhelm Sonora and her husband.

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 Sonora is a witness to a tragic accident during an aerial act, where the rigging comes apart. The narrator's love for the horses comes through strongly, as does her enjoyment of the power and thrill of plunging through the air, a temporary Pegasus.

Of course, the diving horse act was always controversial - the idea of setting a horse up to fall 40 feet just sounds bad. Sonora comments that the ASPCA sometimes came around to examine the horses, and always found them in excellent health. It is worth remembering that the diving act originated in and largely died after a now departed era. In 1932, most children still suffered chilblains every winter. Everyone who knows what a chilblain is, raise their hand. It was a harder era, one where horses were much more commonly used and undoubtedly, abused. That doesn't mean that the diving horse act was humane, simply that it probably didn't look so bad at the time. Second, Sonora maintains that the horses were not forced to jump. At most, in preliminary training, they were encouraged by longe lines and ropes. Some weren't any good at it, and one developed dangerous habits - lack of willingness and unfortunate creativity both disqualified a horse. In the black-and-white photos included in the book, it's clear that the horses wear no bridles during the dives, only a harness that the rider clings to, and in one case, what looks like a crupper. The rider is wearing a bathing suit and carries no crop or whip.

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

Other animals
King Tut - turtle

Steel Pier with video and pics of the diving horse show
Various acts on the Steel Pier, horse act at the end

Related Books and Movies
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.

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