Eighty-seven-year-old Sonora Carver (née Webster), the retired diving-horse rider whose life inspired Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, is very fond of a photo caption from a Depression-era Boston newspaper that describes her as a modern- day Valkyrie. ”Of course, we always swooped down, whereas the Valkyries went up to Valhalla,” she says. ”Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that comparison was appropriate.”
Jumping on horseback off a 40-foot platform into a tank of water wasn’t always such an ethereal experience for Carver and the other female riders at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. ”The water in the tank was 11 feet deep, and the horses usually went down until they touched the bottom with their front feet,” she says. ”Then they would give a terrific shove back to the surface ^ and throw their heads back. If your head was in line with that neck, you could come up with a black eye or worse.” Riders occasionally broke cheekbones and collarbones.
But the worst accident in the history of this strange spectacle involved Carver herself. ”My horse was making a nosedive, absolutely straight down. To avoid turning the horse over on its back I sat back just as straight as possible. Well, I got a very severe slap in the face when I hit the water.” After returning to the dressing room, Carver began to see spots, like a fog, floating before her. ”It didn’t hurt, so I continued to ride, but it just kept getting worse,” she recalls. It turned out she had broken blood vessels in her eyes, which led to blood clots, detached retinas, and finally, at 27, blindness. But even that couldn’t keep her off plunging horses: She dived for 11 years after losing her vision. ”Once I got on the horse, my mental eyesight took over,” she says, ”and I didn’t think about being blind.”