real life

"The horrific sport I never knew existed."

It was during a recent visit to a photography museum in Stockholm that I saw a black and white image of a horse that stuck with me.

Fotografiska features four major exhibitions per year, and since May, they’ve been showcasing Like a Horse. The series comprises photography, video works and installations that capture the fascinating and diverse relationship people have with horses. Gender and privilege are explored artistically, as horses are represented in various contexts and with fluid meanings.

Then there it was.

Image via City of Atlanta Archives.

An image of a horse jumping from a platform, with a person on its back.

There were videos, too - chilling footage of horses approaching the edge of a platform and retreating nervously, not wanting to jump. They looked around and had no where to go. The only way was down. They were trapped.

I started to read the text that accompanied a series of photos. It explained the sport of 'horse diving' - an attraction that started as early as the 1880s. A man named William Carver from Texas had the idea to introduce horse diving into Wild West shows after he was apparently forced to jump from a partially collapsed bridge on horseback. So with the help of his son, a ramp and tower was built, and his daughter Lorena became the first official rider. Soon, they became a staple of carnivals all over the country.

Horses would jump seven days a week, up to four times a week.

Image via City of Atlanta Archives.
ADVERTISEMENT

The act was a permanent attraction in Atlantic City, New Jersey until 1978, when pressure from animal rights activists and declining interest led to its closure.

Horse diving, however, does still exist. Magic Forest Park in New York State continues to practice the sport with a horse named Lightning, who they say "seems to enjoy the crowd and the cheering – especially the affection of children".

The manager insists, "there is no rider, no prods, no electrical jolts, and no trap doors," and Lighting jumps nine feet, twice a day, for two months of the year.

In 2012, when Steel Pier in Atlantic City was considering re-hosting their controversial horse diving spectacle, a number of animal rights activists were vocal about what the experience must be like for horses.

"What would it take to get a horse to voluntarily climb those steep stairs?" asked Valerie Pringle from The Humane Society of the United States. "And when they get to the top, it would be very difficult for them to even consider backing down.  It’s almost a situation where they feel they have no choice but to jump."

Image via City of Atlanta Archives.

In a passionate blog post, Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society, described horse diving as "one of the most stupid [attractions], smacking of the worst kind of hucksterism and snake-oil showmanship."

"When forced to perform in diving acts," he wrote, "horses can show signs of stress and trauma such as hesitating repeatedly before sliding off the platform, climbing out of the water visibly disoriented, and stumbling afterwards".

Once the decision was made to cancel the return of horse diving, Pacelle wrote, "this is a merciful end to a colossally stupid idea".

"We are pleased so many citizens spoke up and urged that this spectacle never get off the ground. Horse diving has the potential to frighten and injure and kill horses, and it rightly belongs in Atlantic City’s history books."

00:00 / ???