Authors: Sonora Carver
Each horse had his own bucket of water, which hung from a nail in his stall. It had his name printed on it in white and it was always kept filled with fresh water. This was another of Dr. Carver’s dicta. He said horses should be able to drink when they were thirsty, not when somebody else decided they were.
Twice a day in the winter they were fed barley, Texas prairie hay, or oats and were also let out to graze. During the summer, when they were working, they were fed three times—morning, late afternoon, and at night after a performance, when the diver was given two quarts of oats and the non-divers one. Their hay was always put down on the ground and dampened a little in order to settle the dust. Putting it on the ground rather than in a manger also gave them a chance to stamp it in order to get the chaff out and keep it from being sucked up into their lungs. This was the way a horse did it when left to himself on the range, and Dr. Carver tried to let them hold to their natural habits as much as possible.
Baskets of carrots and apples were always kept around for treats, and sugar was given each performer after he made his dive. The only other time they got sugar was at Christmas. Of course the horses all loved sugar but had to be taught to eat it, since it was foreign to their natural diet. A lump was moistened and crushed in the hand and then smeared on their lips. They licked it off and, once they had learned the taste, they would take it in lump form from a person’s hand.
They were constantly curried and combed and carefully dried after diving. One of the first things I learned about a horse named Klatawah was to stay away from him when he was being dried. I was standing in his stall one day when the groom was drying him, and Klatawah was giving the groom a time. He was especially ticklish in his underquarters and was dancing around, so that the groom could not get at him. Thinking I’d be helpful, I got an apple and offered it to the horse. He took not only the apple but also my hand and arm! It frightened me half to death, but the next moment he released me, completely unbitten. Nevertheless, after that I stayed away from him when he was being dried.
Al always clipped their coats in the spring so they would come out new and glossy, but he never roached their manes because they all had beautiful ones, except Klatawah, who as a thoroughbred had inherited a stringy one. His was trimmed to stand up stiff and starchy, making him look much younger than he was.
Dr. Carver had told me that from time to time they got in trouble with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose sometimes overzealous members decided the horses were being mistreated. At such times the SPCA would send a veterinarian to examine them. Each time the vet gave them a clean bill of health. The usual conclusion was that he had never seen healthier, more beautifully kept animals in his We. Once, however, in California, a group issued an order restraining the Carvers from presenting the act until it could be investigated. This made Al so mad that he put one of the horses on a truck with a sign on it that read, “I’m being taken to jail for jumping in a tank of water,” and proceeded to drive all around town.
On the day of the hearing he took the horse down to the courthouse and staked her out on the lawn. He wanted to take her inside the courthouse for the judge to see but decided he’d better not when he found that the steps were marble. Since diving horses were never shod (to keep them from slipping when they were diving), it was safer to leave Lightning on the lawn. Al did, however, tell the judge he had her outside and that he’d appreciate it if the judge would come see for himself. The judge recessed court, went out and looked at the horse, and when he got back in threw the whole case out of court.
I arrived in Jacksonville to find the horses stabled at what had once been a race track. One line of paddocks was fixed up for the horses so that each horse had a separate stall. The first morning Dr. Carver took me on a tour. I could see names on the doors as we approached the paddock, but there was no sign of the horses until Dr. Carver cupped his hand to his mouth and shouted, “Where are Daddy’s horses?”
Instantly five heads shot out of five openings: a gray head, a white head, two with roan markings, and at the end of the row a sorrel who tossed his head and whinnied. They were all so beautiful, I sucked in my breath.
Dr. Carver went first to the sorrel, whose door bore the name “Klatawah,” and took the big head in his big hands and pulled it down to his own. He held it there for a moment, petting the horse’s hard jaw, and as I watched I knew with a lump in my throat that there was a great deal of affection between them. Then I gravitated toward the only one I felt I “knew”—the Duchess of Lightning, who had performed the night at the fair. When I put my hand up to pet her she didn’t back away. She looked at me a moment and then whickered slightly, as if she were speaking.
After a few minutes Dr. Carver came to where I was standing and took me up the line, stopping to say something appropriate to each one and telling me something about him. That done, he led me over to the barn where Al was working.
As we walked away I looked back at the heads of the five brave horses which, in the years to come, were to be such vital and dearly loved parts of my life.
We left Jacksonville about three weeks later and arrived in Durham on the first of April. Since we were not due to open at Lakeside Amusement Park until May 20, this gave me almost seven weeks to get in shape.
This was not as simple as it would once have been, for I had gained fifteen pounds since I’d seen the Carvers in October. Adler’s Department Store, where I worked, sold delicious tuna fish sandwiches and coffee with whipped cream and superb lemon pie. The results had been calamitous, and I now weighed 140 pounds.
The fact that the gain was noticeable was brought immediately to my attention. Al had no sooner met us at the station in Jacksonville than he made some remark about their horses not being accustomed to carrying over 135 pounds. “And,” he had added, cutting his eyes at me, “we like them to carry less.”
I came to understand why. It is difficult for a horse to pull out at the incline at the front of the tank if a rider is too heavy. Also, it is easier for a lightweight person to move quickly. This is very important, since moving quickly will help the horse to make a good dive out of a bad dive. Finally, and strictly from a show-business standpoint, a small rider on a big horse has a more dramatic effect on an audience than a big rider on a big horse.
Unfortunately there was little I could do about losing weight but to cut down on my eating. Dr. Carver didn’t believe in dieting, however, so I took walks and swam in the tank, neither of which helped much. My condition demanded something in the nature of a crash program, which, although I didn’t know it, I was about to get.
Al had stayed behind with the horses in Florida until we could see what accommodations there were for them in Durham. Having found them to be adequate, Dr. Carver wired him to come on, and the day after Al’s arrival was the signal for my training to begin.
Since the diving horses were never used as saddle horses they had to be exercised artificially. Each one was put on a long rope held by one of the grooms or Al or Dr. Carver and circled at a gallop around him. Being healthy animals, they reared and kicked like colts. On that never-to-be-forgotten morning, Dr. Carver gave me some old khaki army riding pants to put on over my bathing suit and some sneakers for my feet. The unbecoming pants, which laced up on the inside of the legs, were to protect my legs from the abrasive effects of the pounding until the muscles of my legs and thighs developed enough to enable me to hold myself in place. When I had them on I was boosted up on the back of Klatawah and firmly commanded to “Stick!”
Sticking was, I found, most difficult. I had no saddle, no bridle, no stirrups to brace myself, and the horse had no bit in his teeth. In short, there was nothing with which to guide him or for me to hold onto except the strap of the diving harness, which consisted of two leather bands, one fitted around the base of the horse’s neck and the other around his body, both held in place by connecting straps and a martingale.
To add to my troubles, Klatawah, although the oldest horse of the five, was also the liveliest. Who would have thought that a horse the equivalent of a seventy-year-old man could have galloped the way he did! I slipped and slid all over his back from one side to the other, finally dangling dangerously off to one side at a flying angle. When he felt me slide off he immediately came to a halt and waited patiently while the groom cupped his hand for me to put my foot in and boosted me up again. Then he continued his dashing around and around until I was battered and dizzy.
It was hot and dirty on the lot, and the dust that fogged the air was soon sticking all over me, my own perspiration acting as a base. I could not have been more grateful when the groom finally slowed Klatawah to a walk and allowed me to slide off.
My knees were quivering as I limped away, but I hadn’t gone far when I heard Dr. Carver say, “Where are you going, Sonora?”
“To get dressed,” I replied, wondering how I had managed to avoid shattering my vocal cords.
“No, you’re not,” he said. “You’ve got three more horses to exercise.”
In my state of semi-collapse I found this hard to believe, but Dr. Carver was the boss and I would not have dreamed of arguing. So I clambered on the second horse and, after him, the third. By the time they ran the fourth one out I was near collapse, but I threw myself on her and somehow managed to stay there. I was so tired when I finished, however, that I let my head drop forward as I slid off her back, which proved to be a mistake, for just at that moment she threw her head back and it crashed into my nose. Instantly blood shot from both nostrils as if someone had turned on a faucet.
It hurt terribly and by itself would have been enough to flatten me, but taken in combination with my bedraggled state it proved almost lethal. I swayed for a moment, wondering if I would drop, and then I heard Dr. Carver say, “That was your fault.”
For a moment I wondered if I had heard him right. It seemed such a heartless thing to say under the circumstances. Then I realized he had. “
fault!” I blazed with the last ounce of my strength.
“Yes,” he said, “it was. You were careless and let your head drop down. Next time she’s liable to knock out your teeth.”
It was brutal of him to chastise me at such a time, but I was to find that this was his way. He seemed to have a theory that sympathy bolstered weakness and that strength was begotten by strength. Anyway, I was the momentary victim of whatever he thought and, though I felt like crying, I didn’t. In place of tears I turned on my heel and strode away to my dressing room, telling myself he was a tyrant and a bully and that I’d die rather than cry in front of him and give him that satisfaction.
After a couple of days of ground training I was black and blue all over and so sore when night came I could hardly move. I couldn’t touch myself without whimpering or move without a moan. All my muscles felt as if they’d been tied in granny knots and the tissues as if they’d been boiled. Still I knew, or at least hoped, that soon that part would be over and I’d be whole again.
During the time of my misery the platform was being built and day by day rose higher, like a dinosaur skeleton. The ridged spine was a series of sills (two-by-fours) put up in the ground at four-foot intervals. They were staggered in height so that those at the foot of the ramp were very low and those at the top forty feet high. After the men had them in place they laid uprights on the ground and then pulled them up against the sills with ropes. These were then nailed into place in a pattern of ribbon and crossbraces in order to give the tower strength. After the skeleton was up, flooring was laid on the ramp and a handrail was put up on either side.
At the top, the ramp was joined to the main part of the tower by means of a six-foot aisle which leveled off from the ramp and slanted slightly down at the point of drop-off. Here a series of planks was nailed against the uprights to form one wide piece. This was called the kickoff board because it gave the horse something to kick against when he took off. It was padded so that he couldn’t slip. The sides of the platform were padded, too, to help protect the rider from friction burns that often resulted when a horse dived off at an angle rather than straight ahead and threw or scraped the rider against one of the uprights.
After the tower was completed the tank was dug, and it was enormous—forty feet long, twenty feet wide, and eleven feet deep. Both Al and Dr. Carver watched carefully the entire time it was being dug to make sure that all the measurements were correct.
The depth was particularly important and had been arrived at only after several years of trial and error. They had first experimented with one sixteen feet deep but found that the horse was so buoyant that at such a depth he didn’t go down far enough in the water for his feet to touch the bottom. Touching bottom was important, for it gave the horse the control he otherwise lacked. If he didn’t touch he was liable to come up tail to the audience, sideways, rolling, or what have you. At the head of the tank an incline was placed which the horse used to pull himself out of the tank.
To keep the pool from leaking or draining, it was lined with an enormous canvas attached around the sides by large grommets that were put over stakes driven into the ground. When the tank was filled it held thirty-five thousand gallons of water and made an excellent swimming pool for exercising between performances.
When the whole structure was finished the tower and ramp were painted white and lights were strung along the railing. Streamers of lights were also run from the top of the platform to the ground. These had to be carefully placed so that none were reflected in the pool. To a horse a reflection is not a reflection but the real thing and, being a sensible animal, he is not going to dive into a string of lights. There was also the matter of spotlights which were thrown on the performers after they got up to the top. These, too, had to be placed with extreme care, for light shining in the horse’s eyes could blind or confuse him. Therefore, the spots were aimed to shine from either above or behind.