For decades, tourists in Atlantic City would pay to see a rider and horse dive 40 feet through the air into a small pool. And now a New Jersey author has written about her personal journey de ella with the last of the diving horses.
The Diving Horses of Atlantic City were present throughout the resort city’s golden age from 1928 to the late 1970s. It was the center of the show at the world’s most famous boardwalk. Four times a day, seven days a week, a horse with a rider atop would plunge 40 feet through the air into a 10-feet deep tank of water on the Steel Pier.
The story of what happened to the horses once they were retired was less than glamorous.
“Ultimately when the act was over, they dumped them,” says Cynthia Branigan.
Branigan knows the story like no one else does. In 1980, Branigan rescued and adopted the last of the diving horses named Gamal.
“The horses were athletes. They were courageous. They were definitely put in harm’s way, but they had charisma,” Branigan says.
Branigan has written a book about her life with Gamal titled “The Last Diving Horse in America: Rescuing Gamal and other Animals – Lessons in Living and Loving.” The book examines the history of the diving horses, which remains a huge part of Atlantic City lore. But the focus of the book is on Branigan’s yearslong relationship with Gamal, the last horse sent to auction when the diving horse shows were shut down.
“He was very dear to me, and he affected me greatly,” Branigan says.
Branigan’s employer, an animal rights group, sent her to the auction to buy Gamal. Through a series of events, she unexpectedly became his primary caretaker of him, despite having grown up in New Jersey with no experience with horses.
“My father wouldn’t even let me have a dog,” she says.
Both Branigan and Gamal were 26 years old. He was a grizzled old extreme athlete who had bounced from owner to owner, from rodeos to the steel pier before winding up at auction before a group of slaughterhouse owners. She was young, naive, and inexperienced, and struggling to find her path in life.
But Branigan says the experience of caring for Gamal propelled her into the lifelong work of animal rescue. She has since spent decades rescuing retired racing greyhounds – animals with similar histories as Gamal. She founded the organization Make Peace with Animals, which has fostered more than 5,000 adoptions.
There was a proposal to bring back diving horses to Atlantic City in the mid-1990s, but it was scrapped after opposition from animal advocates.