Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken – The Legacy Of Sonora Webster Carver

Sonora Webster Carver diving with her horse, Lightning

The little known film, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, is one of my favorite movies. The movie first came into the theaters in May, 1991.

From the time I had heard about this movie, I couldn’t wait to see it so when it finally hit the theaters, I dragged the guy I was dating at the time with me to go see it.

 I sat in the movie theater absolutely mesmorized. Sonora was an inspiration. From the opening of the film, I was truly overwhelmed with her life story. Sonora was a fighter. She defied all the odds and stayed true to herself. I spent the entire film just absorbed in her life and her experiences. (I don’t think my date was as enamored. Poor guy.)

Sonora and my grandmother came from the same generation. Sonora was born just a few months after my grandmother was born and she died just a few months before my grandmother.

Let me introduce you to this amazing and inspirational woman.

Sonora Webster Carver was born on February 2, 1904. She was the oldest of six children. When she was twenty, she saw an advertisement in the paper looking for girls who weren’t afraid of heights and who were willing to travel.  Excited with the idea of travelling, Sonora answered the ad, which had been placed by Dr. W.F. “Doc” Carver and the rest is history.

Dr. Carver, who partnered with Buffalo Bill Cody and put the Wild West show on the road and on the map, invented the act. Many different stories circulate on how Dr. Carver came up with the idea, but the most popular is that one day he was riding across a bridge. The bridge collapsed, sending him and his horse into the river below. The horse “dove” into the water and they swam safely to shore. And the act was born!

Dr. Carver initially was not all that impressed with Sonora so he originally gave her a job as a stable hand. As time went on, and he found more and more belief in Sonora, he allowed her to train as a “Diving Horse Girl.” Sonora eventually became the main act of his show.

Dr. Carver died in Sacramento, CA in 1927 and his son, Al, who Sonora eventually married, took over the show.

The diving horses became a huge success and a permanent fixture on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier beginning in 1929. Sonora easily became the most famous diving girl, and Sonora’s younger sister, Arnette, quickly followed in her footsteps.

Sonora Webster Carver with her horse, Lightning, the owner of the Steel Pier and John Phillips Sousa circa late 1920's

The way the act worked was  amazing. The horses ran up a ramp, while the riders would wait at the top, mounting as they ran by to take the plunge together. In the beginning, the dives were measured at 60 feet, but as time went on the heights were slowly lowered to about 40 feet.

Throughout the show’s existence, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PETA) was constantly looking for evidence  to charge the Carver’s with  abuse and cruelty to animals , but according to Sonora, they never found anything because the horses were so well loved and taken care of. Throughout the history of the show, not a single horse was injured.

According to Sonora, when the horses landed in the tank, which was about 11 feet deep, they would go down until their hooves touched the bottom and then they would push off to get back to the surface. Of course, the horses threw their heads up to help with momentum. The diving girl had to make sure she kept her head to the side or  she would surface with a bloody nose, black eyes and/or broken cheekbones and collar bones. Each diving girl claimed that at some point in their career, they had broken several bones from not being positioned properly at the time of a dive.

While the show was dangerous, Sonora suffered one of the worst injuries in the history of the act.

In 1931, her horse Red Lips slipped while attempting a dive and fell nearly straight down. To avoid him flipping over, Sonora sat back as far as she could and put as much of her weight on his rear. When they hit the water, Sonora hit with her eyes wide open.

When she returned to her dressing room, she began to see spots in her vision, but since there was no pain, she waved it off and continued diving. Her eyesight continued to grow worse and eventually doctors diagnosed her with broken blood vessels in her eyes. They led to blood clots and eventually detached retinas. At the age of twenty seven, Sonora was completely blind.

However, even blindness could not keep Sonora off of her horses. She continued diving for eleven years blind and the audience never knew it.

The diving horse show continued throughout the Great Depression and World War II., but it became hard for Al and Sonora to find people to build the towers and care for their horses. The rising gas prices made it very expensive to travel, so the show stopped running in 1942. Once the war was over, the act opened again and became a main fixture at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City until it closed permanently in 1978.

Sonora wrote her autobiography, A Girl And Five Brave Horses (which I have yet to read), in 1961 and this book inspired the Disney film made about her life story in 1991. As a sidenote, the horses that were used in the film learned to dive, but never at the height Sonora and her horses dove.

After Al and Sonora left the show in 1942, they moved to New Orleans. Al died sometime in the 1960’s (from what I have read) and Sonora worked as a Dictaphone typist until she retired in 1979. Sonora Webster Carver died at the age of 99 on September 20, 2003.

A funny fact about the movie, Sonora attended the premiere and absolutely hated the film. She said they got one thing right and that was she dove horses and dove blind for 11 years. Funny how this movie, which inspired me so much, was a movie Sonora herself detested!

Shortly after the film debuted, my own life crashed and burned. But Sonora’s story influenced me to keep tredging on. I figured if Sonora could endure all the hard times she had to face, well I could, too.

The movie rental store, down the street from my house, had  a poster of the movie on display on the wall. One day while I was in there, I asked them if I could buy the poster from them when they were ready to get rid of it. They said, better than that, they could give it to me for free!, so when they were ready to take it down, they called me and gave me the poster. I bought a frame for it and displayed it for years next to my bed. I treasured it for many years.

Sonora Webster Carver’s life is an inspiration.. She showed that courage and bravery can get you through anything. If you just work and dream hard enough, you can achieve anything.

Even though the landscape of Atlantic City has changed a lot since  she and her horses dove there, the legacy of Sonora’s life and influence still echo along that boardwalk and across the sand. Sonora’s life still influences me today.

If you want to watch Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken for free, you can find it on youtube under Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken under parts 1-9. It is rated G and I highly recommend it for young girls to see. Below is a  wonderful montage of the movie. I love watching it when I need to get re-inspired!


Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Just ask Sonora Webster Carver.


3 thoughts on “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken – The Legacy Of Sonora Webster Carver

  1. Hi, I stumbled upon your site looking for a picture of Sonora Webster for a post about “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” and I noticed we agreed on everything! Plus the info you added about the real Sonora was super interesting. Great post 🙂

    Oh, if you want to take a look at mine, here’s the url: http://via-51.blogspot.com/2011/07/childhood-memories-wild-hearts-cant-be.html

    Cheers 🙂

    PS- Hope you don’t mind I copied the pic. I you want me to remove it, just tell me 🙂

    • Hello!

      Feel free to use any of my Sonora pictures. I got them when I googled her name. Thank you so much for your kind words about my blog. I really appreciate it! Sonora sure was an inspiring lady, I wish I could have known her but the movie about her life made me feel like I already did.
      Have a wonderful evening!


  2. Pingback: 31 days of gratitude: {day 20} gratitude in the midst of great tragedy | writingjen

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