Wednesday Book Review: ‘A Girl and Five Brave Horses’

Erin McCabe is back with the diving horse tale of Sonora Carver, A Girl and Five Brave Horses.

From Erin:


So, I meant to finish and review a totally different book this week: The Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry. You know, a book about Affirmed, the last winner of the Triple Crown because I wanted to gear up for the next winner of the Triple Crown. But I sort of accidentally started another book that was substantially shorter and finished that one first.

Alas, I have not yet mastered the ability of reading two books at once or while riding or writing. Which is to say, stay tuned for my next review, when you can either drown your Triple Crown sorrows or toast the first Triple Crown winner in (my) memory with a book all about Affirmed and Alydar!

Meanwhile, I’ve been distracting myself from the Triple Crown excitement with Sonora Carver’s memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses. Let me first admit it right now: as a girl, I LOVED the movie based on this book, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Loved it. I’m still struggling with how to balance my adoration of that film and my utter intrigue with diving horses with my immense relief the ill-advised attempt to bring the diving horse show back to Atlantic City was scrapped, most likely because of the huge outcry from animal protection organizations.

It’s good the show got cancelled because now I won’t have to square the fact that, had the diving horse show been resurrected, I probably would have been tempted to go and then would have felt bad about watching it. It’s kind of how I feel about racing. There’s parts of it (really big, important parts) I don’t like (injuries, slaughter), but there’s also parts (horses) I really enjoy watching. I don’t know what to say, really. I’m a woman of many contradictions?

With all those disclaimers and uncomfortable admissions out of the way, let me just say that if you loved Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, you probably need to read A Girl and Five Brave Horses by Sonora Carver, as told by Elizabeth Land. Covering the time from which Sonora’s mother convinced her to respond to Doc Carver’s advertisement for an “attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires travel” to her first dive after being blinded, the memoir is charming.

The writing is at its best when Sonora is describing the diving horses. Her passion for them is evident in her account of the first time she watched the Duchess of Lightning dive: “She hung for a moment at an almost perpendicular angle, then pushed away from the boards and lunged outward into space. For a split second her form was imprinted on the night sky like a silhouette, then her beautiful body arched gracefully over and down and plunged into the tank.”

Or the first time she dove from the low training tower, a drop of twelve feet, “I slipped off his back and was as proud as if I’d just brought in a winner at the Kentucky Derby.” If you want to feel like diving horses weren’t such a bad thing after all, this book will help. So will this interview with Sonora’s sister, Arnette, also a diving horse girl. Or you might just feel even more conflicted.

It’s not just in the descriptions of the horses themselves though; the book is also quite reassuring in respect to how the horses were trained and cared for. As Sonora says, “Horses are like people; they form likes and dislikes, experience anger, sorrow, joy, and loneliness, as well as cowardice and courage; and courage, the most important quality of all in a diving horse, cannot be taught. A person cannot whip a horse to courage any more than he can whip the fear out of him.”

This philosophy is evident throughout the book and is backed up by the account of Apollo, a horse who didn’t make it as a diver. When he showed he lacked the courage by refusing to go off the twelve-foot platform, he was replaced (his actual fate is not detailed). Indeed, it’s hard to imagine being able to force a horse off a 40- or 60-foot platform over and over, year-in and year-out, and it’s reassuring that, according to Sonora, the only horses who became divers were those who enjoyed it.

Of course, perhaps this is all an elaborate attempt on Sonora’s part to make the show look good—she does mention the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protests which culminated in a hearing for animal cruelty (the judge “threw the whole case out of court”) and, in her interview, Arnette says, “Wherever we went, the S.P.C.A. was always snooping around, trying to find if we were doing anything that was cruel to animals. They never found anything because those horses lived the life of Riley. In all the years of the act, there was never a horse that was injured.” Indeed, the book includes far more details about how the horses were fed treats, let out to pasture, and given nicely bedded stalls, oats, and free-choice access to water (which apparently was not the norm in the 20s?), than about the protests.

I confess I was less interested in Sonora’s story when she details her treatment and initial adjustment to the blindness that resulted from hitting the water with her eyes open. Like Sonora, I just wanted to get back to the horses. However, Sonora’s can-do attitude about dealing with her blindness (“I decided…to treat my blindness as if it were a minor detail rather than a major catastrophe”) and the moments where she articulates her struggle for independence (“I hated the idea of using [blindness] to win special compensations”) are quite absorbing and help illuminate the connections between the kind of courage necessary to ride a diving horse off a 40-foot tower and to enjoy what Sonora calls life’s adventures and experiences.

“It seems to me that everyone has to make adjustments to life, that we all have our limitations,” Sonora says, “but that if we are wise we do not make other people miserable by concentrating on those limitations. One of the fundamental responsibilities of every human being in his relationship with others is to create happiness, not destroy it. We also have responsibilities toward ourselves. The prime one is not to make ourselves miserable by dwelling on something we can do nothing about.”

So, here’s hoping that California Chrome overcomes his limitations and makes us all happy. But if not, there’s always plenty of books about amazing horses to read until the next chance at the Triple Crown comes around.

Erin McCabe rides two OTTB mares and hopes to someday soon get back to competing at horse trials. Her first novel, I Shall Be Near To You, was published earlier this year. You can learn more at


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