ATLANTIC CITY — When the iconic diving horse act returns to the Steel Pier this summer, spectators can expect to see a horse ridden by a stunt diver jump from a platform 30 to 40 feet in the air, much like the original attraction made famous in the 1920s.
Another trapping of the shows, at least the 1990s version of the act, also is likely to return: Animal-rights protesters.
The show’s latest reprisal will be a far cry from the diving horse act last seen at the pier during a two-month stint in 1993, which came to an abrupt close following protests by several animal-rights groups. At that time, the show featured two ponies, a mule and a dog jumping 15 feet into a pool of water. No riders were involved.
“This is a full-scale, custom act,” said Tony Catanoso, one of the pier’s owners. “We know the diving horse is controversial, but I think people need to look at the bigger picture. A diving horse is going to be iconic. It’s going to be a small piece of the development project that will bring family entertainment back to Atlantic City.”
The original show began in the late 1920s and featured swimsuit-clad women on horses diving from a 40-foot platform. The show was discontinued months after Resorts International purchased the pier in 1978.
Plans for the show’s return were announced Wednesday when the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved a $6 million contribution to the $20 million first phase of the Steel Pier improvement project. The attraction coincides with the goals of the city’s newly unveiled Master Plan to improve upon existing elements within the city.
However, statements Thursday by animal-rights groups suggest that the show will face opposition.
“The Humane Society of the United States emphatically opposes equine diving acts, which subject the animals to inhumane and potentially abusive situations in the course of their training, transport and performance,” Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said in a written statement. “The stress and trauma endured by these animals, in addition to the risk of injury to them, make these acts unacceptable. They are senseless animal exploitation, for the sake of entertainment and profit.”
The Humane Society’s response to the act in 1993 included flying a banner plane over the Steel Pier to protest the show.
Catanoso, however, is adamant that nothing cruel or inhumane will be associated with the attraction. An out-of-state private consultant, whom he declined to name, is training three horses with trick divers that will rotate through the shows.
The diving horse is planned as the finale to a 15- to 20-minute show at an indoor amphitheater at the pier — likely with four shows on weekdays and six on weekends. Three or four other acts, including acrobats, will go on before the horse; none of the other acts includes animals. There will be an admission fee of less than $10 for the show, though the exact price has yet to be determined.
There are plans to show off the horses outside the pier as well, possibly allowing them to walk on the resort’s beaches in the morning, Catanoso said. Atlantic City is looking to bring horseback riding back to the resort’s beaches this summer between Steel Pier and Jackson Avenue. The city, however, has not yet selected a vendor to provide the service.
Sue McDonnell, an equine behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania, said to a small degree, there is something natural about a horse jumping into water. She’s observed semi-wild horses, particularly young foals, voluntarily jumping into ponds from inclines of 5 or 6 feet. However, that behavior is very rare.
“I don’t think anybody has ever studied how high they will voluntarily jump from for sure,” said McDonnell, who also owns a private equine consulting business based in Unionville, Pa. “Some horses do actually dive in that they will put their head down, dive, go under water, and come up like a person.”
Still, she said, she was surprised to hear about the return of a diving horse act to Atlantic City.
“Animal-rights people often jump on these things. I would think in terms of (public relations), it would be pretty impossible to bring back,” McDonnell said.
Janine Motta, a spokeswoman for the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, was among the protesters of the resort’s 1993 show and said she was enthused when the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort — then the owner of the pier — stepped in to put an end to the show. At the time, Donald Trump called a news conference to mark the end of the act, saying he disliked it from the start.
“It just boggles the mind that they’re going back and doing this again. Certainly, we’ll be looking into finding out more about it,” Motta said.
Jeff Hirst, a New Jersey native who is now a resident of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, also has started his own movement against the attraction with an online petition that had more than 80 signatures as of Thursday night.
“When I read about it, I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Hirst said. “It’s cruel. And it’s definitely a step backwards for Atlantic City. I really hope the new owners of the Steel Pier will come to their senses.”
Catanoso said he hopes the show will be reminiscent of the glory days of Steel Pier. The owners are in talks with Sarah Hart, a former diving horse rider and widow of Philadelphia Flyers announcer Gene Hart, to act as a spokeswoman for the show.
She has spoken with pier owners but no agreements have been made, Catanoso said.
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