Authors: Sonora Carver
At such times he would flop over against the right side of the tower in a sort of reclining position, and instead of counting out his age vigorously at the edge of the platform, he would give vent to his disgust by making a few lazy scrapes at the pad, as if wiping his foot on a door mat. Then, more often than not, he would take off without bothering to straighten out of that absurd half-reclining position. This was hard on the rider, since it invariably caused a friction burn anywhere from the ankle to the knee, and I was forced finally to wear elastic ankle and knee bands to protect myself when I rode him.
Klatawah’s style was the extreme plunge, which, according to definitions propounded by Dr. Carver, meant that when he took off he exerted the greatest pressure with his forelegs. This sent his body out in a lunging motion that was not as beautiful to watch as other diving styles, but Klatawah could make it spectacular because he worked with such fire.
The instant he realized the crowd was large he would begin to prance. Up would go the ears, and the beautiful arch in his neck would become more pronounced. When he worked like this the crowd always applauded with extra enthusiasm, and he loved the applause. In fact, as I was to learn later, he seemed actually to be jealous when another act got applause. Once while we were appearing in Atlantic City it was customary to bring the horses from their stables and keep them backstage until time for the dive. When the audience applauded an act working out front, the applause could be heard backstage. Klatawah would lift his head high in the air, listen intently, and then whinny, as if to say, “Just be patient. I’ll be there.”
The other types of dives horses made were the medium plunge, in which equal pressure is exerted with all four feet, a very graceful dive to witness; and the nose dive, which occurs when the horse exerts the greatest pressure with his hind feet. This last dive is not only very beautiful but also the most spectacular and by far the most difficult to ride.
In all three dives the horse enters the water head down and forelegs extended, but in the nose dive the horse enters the water with his whole body in an absolutely vertical position, while in the other two styles the body goes in at an angle. The extreme plunge was by far the easiest to ride, which was the reason I had learned on Klatawah.
There was more to Klatawah, however, than mere showmanship. He was utterly dependable and, aside from a real intelligence, had an endearing sense of duty. He first demonstrated this to me one day shortly after I had started diving from the high platform.
It was discovered just before performance time that the ground near the front of the tank had mired. When the workmen were preparing it they had scooped too much soil away from the incline and then back-filled with soft dirt to make up for their mistake. After a few days the slow seepage of water through the tarpaulin had turned the incline into a quagmire. Since this made it difficult for the horse to climb out, especially when burdened with a rider, Dr. Carver told me to dismount once we were in the water and let Klatawah swim out alone.
Ordinarily I would never have dismounted, since the mark of an expert rider is the one who stays with her horse, but that night as Klatawah surfaced I immediately let go and slipped off his back. When he started swimming he realized I was not on his back and turned and circled the tank, looking for me. He swam up beside me and gave me a look that clearly said, “You poor thing. Fell off, did you? Well, get back on. We’ve got to do this thing right, you know.”
When I still did not mount but continued to do my own swimming he gave me another look which seemed to say, “Well, if that’s the way you feel about it,” and headed for the incline.
It would have been a different story with Judas. Judas, the horse I rode alternately with Klatawah, was, to put it bluntly, a horse of a different color. Had I slipped off his back while in the tank it is likely he would have gone off and let me drown. Not that he was malicious; he simply didn’t care. For Judas it was every man for himself.
He was a white horse with roan ears and roan spots on his body. He had been given his name by a performer who was riding him on the practice lot one day when he threw her off over his head. “That horse is a Judas!” she had said, and Dr. Carver, overhearing, had seized on the name. He said that since he had one biblical character in the troupe—John the Baptist—he might as well have another.
Judas’ personality contained more complex qualities than this streak of unreliability. Like many horses, he had an abundance of curiosity, and his was not only unusually strong but of a peculiar quality. It was the impersonal curiosity of a bystander, so completely cold-blooded that I had the feeling he would have stood by and watched any crime without turning a hair. Furthermore, his curiosity was so compelling that in his stall he never stood to eat his hay but after getting a mouthful would walk to the door and hang his head out. A lot of hay usually fell out of his mouth, and frequently as much as a third of his meal would end up outside on the ground, but Judas’ philosophy seemed to be that he would rather satisfy his curiosity than his stomach. Later I became convinced that this animal was also capable of chagrin.
One day when he and Klatawah were out grazing in the pasture adjoining the tower I saw George going out to bring them back to the barn. It must have been a day when Judas was feeling unusually perverse, because the groom had no sooner led the two horses up to the barn than Judas suddenly cut to one side. The groom made a wild grab at his halter, but it was too late. Judas was off and away, and there was nothing for the groom to do but put Klatawah in his stall and then go back to get Judas.
By this time Judas must have decided to play a game. He stood perfectly still until the groom got close enough to reach his halter, then he threw back his head and took off. This happened four times, and each time the groom almost caught him. The fifth time, just as Judas jerked his head up, his hind feet skidded in a wet place on the lot and his hoofs dug a trench in a semicircle. In a half-up, half-down position he sat for a moment, then got up and with a completely crest-fallen appearance trotted back to the barn without the groom so much as laying a hand on him. George told me later that Judas went immediately to his stall and walked back to the farthest corner, where he stood with his face to the wall for the rest of the day.
Judas was a fair-to-middling diver, but he acquired a habit which, as time went on, developed beyond harmless eccentricity. Instead of standing on the floor of the tower to look the crowd over, he would drop down into position for the kickoff and simply hang there. At this point the strain on the arms and legs of the rider is severe, and the first few times he pulled this stunt my muscles felt as if they would relax in spite of me and that I would go off over his head. Finally one day I stretched my feet back to the padding on the tower and hooked my toes over the edge and, thus bracing myself, found I could remain on the edge just as long as he could.
While he hung there he seemed to be debating the merits of an extreme versus a medium plunge. Later, after many such indecisive poses, Judas invented a variation; he began to twist his body in mid-air after he took off and corkscrewed his way down, a trick that caused him to strike the water crosswise rather than toward the front of the tank. No one could guess what went on in his mind, but the maneuver seemed deliberate, since it took a great deal more physical effort to dive that complicated way. Deliberate or not, it held possibilities of real danger; he might hit the side of the tank or unseat the rider in mid-air. When we could not break him of his new habit, Dr. Carver reluctantly decided he must sell Judas.
He always hated to sell any of the horses, because he loved them in spite of their faults, but in Judas’ case there seemed nothing else to do. The next step was to break him to the bridle and reins before seeking out prospective buyers. Each morning thereafter when Klatawah was taken to the parking lot to be exercised I went along on Judas to ride him back and forth.
In the beginning Judas exhibited a conspicuous lack of interest in being ridden and I was unable to get a real response from him, but one morning he was suddenly galvanized into action. “Well,” I thought as he dashed off, “this is more like it.” The groom was leading Klatawah back to the barn, and Judas, seeing his old friend, apparently wanted to tag along, hence the burst of speed. He must have decided almost simultaneously that he wished to carry me no farther, for he suddenly lowered his head, raised his hind feet, and made a little pig jump to one side. I did a complete somersault over his head and wound up sitting upright on the ground.
As I sat there, half dead, he galloped around me in a wide circle, taking care not to step in the dangling reins. The expression on his face, every movement of his body seemed to radiate silent amusement. It was as if he were saying, “Ha! Thought you were smart, didn’t you, riding me that way. Now look at you. You’re sitting in a puddle of mud.” And I was. By some cunning he had contrived to dump me in the only muddy spot on the entire lot.
Switching my eyes from Judas to Dr. Carver, I found him doubled up laughing. “That horse is named right,” I said. “I hope the person who buys him makes him pull a garbage wagon for the rest of his life.” But Dr. Carver never sold him. When the chips were down, he couldn’t bring himself to put an ad in the paper. Judas remained with us as a kind of pet— an expensive one—and Dr. Carver frequently berated himself for being softhearted. He would stop in front of Judas’ stall and say, “I ought to sell that beggar. He doesn’t do anything but eat.”
The other horse we had with us that year was a mare named Snow. Her full name was Pure as Snow, which suited her perfectly. She was completely white, without a single colored hair on her whole body, nor was her skin marred by the dark blotches so often found on white horses. Had her weight been normal, her delicately shaped head and finely molded legs would have made a perfect model for a sculptor or painter, but unhappily Snow was a glutton.
In the beginning her gluttony had been a blessing, since she would do anything for a carrot and was therefore easy to train, but in the end it ruined not only her figure but her disposition.
In coaxing for bits of food she gradually evolved a routine that often ended in violence if she didn’t get her way. First she would rub her nose on the door of her stall, then she would raise her foot and paw the air. Next she would raise her upper lip, as if smiling or laughing. If this fake cheerful countenance didn’t get results, she would begin to kick her stall angrily and hard. She would have kicked it apart if Al had not reinforced it with extra planking.
Mealtime was the worst of all. Unless she was fed first she would simply go berserk, and even after she had been fed she would continue to fight savagely, kicking backward while she ate, as if she were afraid every horse in the barn was going to try to take her food away from her. Of course her continual weight gain ruined her for diving and she had to be retired, after which she was used only for breeding purposes.
The two remaining horses, Lightning and John, were with Al that season and I didn’t ride either of them until the following year.
We did not go directly into winter quarters my first year, as contracts had been signed for some midwinter fairs in Florida. The first and biggest was at Tampa, and from the time we got there I was all agog. I loved the booths in the lofty buildings with their exhibitions of bright-colored quilts and wine-red preserves and golden jars of honey, and I loved the smell of grain and hay in the stalls and the pen after pen of livestock. All this was magnified a dozen times at the South Florida Fair at Tampa, which was by far the biggest I had ever seen, and I was in a fever of excitement from the moment we arrived. During the morning hours Dr. Carver humored me; we walked aimlessly through the huge buildings crammed with everything from prune cake to pigeons, and one day during our wanderings I spied a litter of small red pigs just as the noonday sun was pouring through the windows, turning them into diminutive bits of animated fire. To my eager questions the attendant replied that they had been born that morning. I thought them cunning, so each day thereafter I insisted on going over for another look. Dr. Carver grumbled about being dragged “all over forty acres just to look at some damn pigs,” but I was convinced then and still am that he enjoyed seeing them as much as I did.
For me that fair was special for another reason. Throughout the previous park and fair season the diving-horse act had been publicized in the newspapers. There had been pictures of the dive, and my name had appeared in stories on the pages devoted to theatrical news, but none of this had been personal. It had all been stock publicity material. Now at last there were reporters to interview me, and photographers took action pictures which were published in the leading Florida newspaper. Working beside me were people who were famous in the show world, but they didn’t get the publicity our act received, which pleased me immensely. I was careful, however, not to get it in my head that I was a big shot. I knew that it was the act the people came to see, not me, and that it had been the outstanding act of the business long before my time.
The term “free act” perhaps needs some explanation. A free act is one that is put on as a special attraction at amusement parks and fairs in order to draw a crowd. It is not, as some people assume, an act that performs free.
The term was coined back in the old days when harness racing was popular. Track managers were hard put to keep the audience occupied, until someone came up with the idea of getting professional performers to entertain during these intervals. The professionals at first were garnered from the circus, and their acts were called “free acts” because no fee was added to the usual cost of admission.
Later acts were evolved for the special purpose of performing at harness races, acts that had never been and never were part of the circus. Gradually these acts moved away from race tracks into the world of the country or state fair as well as that of the amusement parks. Dr. Carver was astute enough to spot a trend and pioneered in the training of diving horses for the specific purpose of appearing as a free act all over the country.