How a Steel Pier Diving Horse Spurred This Woman to Rescue Thousands of Animals

Jersey-born Cynthia A. Branigan recounts her special bond with Gamal, whom she spared from a potential trip to the slaughterhouse, in her new book.

Cynthia A. Branigan with her horse Gamal

Courtesy of Cynthia A. Branigan, seen here with her beloved Gamal.

Labor Day 1978 served as the swan song for the Diving Horses at Steel Pier, ending the aerial attraction in Atlantic City that spanned parts of six decades.

However, that wasn’t the end of the story, as Cynthia A. Branigan writes in The Last Diving Horse in America: Rescuing Gamal and Other Animals—Lessons in Living and Loving (Pantheon), due out October 19.

Working for the Fund for Animals, Branigan purchased Gamal, a 20-something, bay-colored gelding, for $2,600 at an auction in Shamong in May 1980, sparing him from a possible trip to the slaughterhouse.

Branigan, who grew up in Lawrenceville, helped care for Gamal until his death in August 1989. He was the final surviving horse from the Steel Pier.

“Gamal was a remarkable horse,” says Branigan, who details the special bond that grew between her and Gamal.

In tracing diving-horse history from its start in Kansas City, Missouri in 1894, Branigan uncovers numerous obscure facts. Some horses, for example, would throw up after diving 40 feet into the 10-foot-deep tank of water at Steel Pier.

[RELATED: An Alluring Childhood Trip to the Atlantic City Boardwalk]

There were two controversial aspects of the act, she says.

“The first was the diving itself. In fact, horses who did not want to perform were weeded out during early training sessions. The ones who liked the water and liked performing did so without prodding. It is not something I condone, but no overt cruelty was involved,” says Branigan.

“The second part was the very definition of cruelty,” she continues. “When the Steel Pier was sold, the remaining horses were disposed of at a low-end auction. No one cared about the years the horses performed or the tourist dollars they brought in. They were nothing to the money men.”

Branigan’s time with Gamal led to other animal projects. At the Fund, Branigan set up adoption centers for more than 10,000 wild horses and burros rescued from U.S. public lands.

In 1988, she started Make Peace With Animals. The group has found homes for more than 5,500 retired racing greyhounds. Branigan, 68, notes the pace of adoptions has slowed as fewer venues exist for racing, but her work isn’t finished.

“I won’t quit until the greyhound racing industry is done,” she vows.

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