Atlantic City’s Airborne Equines

The trained diving horses of Atlantic City were an attraction that made the biggest splash on the boardwalk's Steer Pier.

Photo courtesy of Tim Boxer/Getty Images

From the Three Stooges to the Rolling Stones, Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, which opened in 1898, presented a wide range of entertainment for much of the 20th century. But, the performers who generated the biggest splash—literally—were the four-legged variety, the diving horses.

Featured from 1929 to 1978, with a break from 1945 to 1953, the diving-horse exhibition was the brainchild of Dr. William Frank Carver, a friend and business associate of Wild West impresario William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The attraction was popular at county and state fairs before becoming a fixture at the Steel Pier.

The seaside setting lent a sense of drama to the proceedings. A trained horse made its way up a ramp, its hoofs echoing off the wood, as crowds watched from the stands. Horse and rider poised at the top of the diving platform before taking the 40-foot plunge into the 12-foot-deep pool. The aerial adventure lasted mere seconds, but never failed to draw prolonged cheers.

Sarah Detwiler Hart, a diver in the 1956 and 1957 seasons, felt at ease aboard the horses. “I was comfortable with the animals—I never prodded them. When they’d roll over underwater, I’d go right with them,” she recalled in the 2001 book Tales of South Jersey: Profiles and Personalities.

The diving horses provided competition for other performers. In his 2009 book, Steel Pier, Atlantic City: Showplace of the Nation, author Steve Liebowitz recounted stories of drummer Buddy Rich and saxophonist Michael Brecker having audiences abandon them in mid-performance to see the airborne equines.

By the late 1970s, the glory days of the Pier were a fading memory. The diving horse was one of the few remaining attractions when the Steel Pier closed in 1978. In the end, Liebowitz reported, handlers had to pass around a casino cup for change to buy oats for the horses.

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