Friday, February 17, 2012

Diving Horses: Corny Entertainment, Not Cruelty

There was a recent news story about the possible revival of a horse diving attraction -- or rather, an article about how the idea was shot down immediately by animal welfare advocates. I'm going to argue that horse diving is actually pretty humane-- but before I do, let's back up and get some perspective.

Once upon a time, before the internet, Netflix and 300 TV channels, people created their own forms of entertainment. There were block parties, marathon dance contests and all sorts of small-time tourist attractions, like gator-wrestling or the The Corn Palace in South Dakota (decorated entirely with naturally colored corn kernels):

Also known as "The World's Largest Bird Feeder"

Horse diving was another one of those "corny" small-time tourist attractions (hah ha, sorry). One of the most famous horse-diving spots was at Steel Pier, in Atlantic City NJ. William "Doc" Carver first got the idea and set up shop here in the early 1900s. Horse diving then spread around America. It was fairly easy and cheap to set up; you just needed a deep tank of water, a big ramp, a girl and a horse. The horse climbs the ramp, the girl sits on the horse, and both dive into the pool from 20-60 feet up. Some people tried it with mules or ponies. Here's an example. (Warning: loud rock music accompanies video, for some reason.) Acts continued into the 1970s.

Today, there are still a few places where you can see one of these shows. Mostly, they've died out simply because no one thinks this stuff is very exciting anymore; in an age where we can watch 3D explosions at the theater, we just don't see the thrill. However, this February Steel Pier Associates in New Jersey was looking to revive the former glory of the Atlantic City Steel Pier, and briefly entertained the idea of bringing Doc Carver's act back.

The outrage was intense. People started online petitions, called up New Jersey city officials, sent angry letters to Steel Pier Associates, and the Humane Society of the United States even issued a statement condemning the idea. What none of these angry missives stated was why. Why is horse diving so terrible?

In the history of Doc Carver's show, no horse was ever injured. There were allegations that horses were forced to dive (in other shows, not Carver's) via cattle prods, whips and dropping trap doors-- but in every video and picture I've seen of horse diving, there's no evidence of those cruelties. The horse walked up the ramp by itself, jumped off by itself, and swam ashore just fine. I'm sure bad stuff may have happened in some shows, but the potential for abuse is present in any animal sport or act. So what else?

Well, one HSUS blogger claimed that, "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." Hesitation, stumbling and confusion? Sounds like the average schooling show to me.

What's left is simply that horse diving looks dramatic and scary. I'm sure it is scary for the horse. I know I just about pee my swimsuit if I get up on a high dive board. But is it any more scary than torpedoing over a dozen big jumps, skidding around a rodeo ring with steers in front of a screaming crowd, or speeding across hedges and water amidst a dozen other animals?

We push horses to do scary things all of the time. In fact, the sports above are probably more traumatic overall than horse diving, because instead of one easy jump into water, we ask them to perform daily miracles of strength and stamina, acquire specialized skills and take plenty of physical stress. Compared with the training regimen of a high-level jumper, a diving horse has got it relatively easy.

Of course I'm concerned about horse diving. I think it would be all too easy for diving horses to be cruelly shoved up a ramp, forced off of it, and crammed into a box stall for the rest of the day.  I also think that the horses used in horse diving have to have the temperament and personality for it; forcing any old horse to jump down 60 feet is a bad idea. But I'm concerned any time an animal is used in a sport or for entertainment, and I don't think horse diving is much different than many other things we do with horses. We tell ourselves that as long as we provide the horse with great care and a good retirement, it's okay. If we need to re-think that concept in general, I'm open to that.

In an interview, a former employee at Steel Pier who is now a PETA member said that when he watched the horse diving acts, he didn't think they were traumatic. Martin “Marty” Morley said:

“Owen was the leader, so he took the horses out to the tower, but they were not pushed, prodded, or beaten in any way shape or form to jump. There was a ramp that led up to a little ledge at about 10 ft. intervals for the horses to look out.

They would look at the crowd and waited their turn to jump. Some jumped right away, but others waited 15-20 minutes. Sometimes, a horse would shake his head no and just not jump. But they were never ever pushed, prodded, beaten, or whipped to jump. They could back down if they wanted do, and some did. They weren’t forced. The only thing I hated was that they were kept in their stalls all day, when they weren’t performing.

I am very involved in animal rescue now, so I see racehorses that we get, who have bad whip marks, or you can see where the saddles have been digging into their backs, but these [diving] horses were kept in great shape.”

Mr. Morely also talks about the smaller ramps and training jumps used, probably to condition the horses to jump higher more gradually.

If you're still not convinced, check out these two videos. They're more recent diving horse attractions, both without riders, where the animals do hesitate about jumping-- but they're not forced, they look healthy, and everything looks reasonably safe. I'm not impressed by these shows-- I think everyone would be better off with a different form of entertainment-- but I'm not about to heavily criticize them while at the same time cheering on local barrel racers. Of course, that's just my two cents-- what do you think?

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