Horse Sense Is More Than You Ever Imagined

Excerpted from Living Wonders

John Michell and Robert Rickard, Thames and Hudson, 1982, pp 113-5

 

Clever and Calculating Horses

In 1958, according to a letter in Nature, 20 October 1904, there was a horse on show in London which could 'count, answer questions, and fire off a small canon'. Since that time many showmen have taught animals to tap the ground with hoof or paw until they receive a signal from their trainer which causes them to stop. Thus it can be made to appear that the animals are counting or spelling out answers to questions. Joseph Meehan, the writer of the Nature letter referred to above, mentions two animals, a horse and a collie dog, which he saw on the stage of the Royal Aquarium, London, in about 1891. They performed feats of mathematics, telling the time, guessing people's ages and so on. The trainer explained to Mr. Meehan how it was all done. In the case of the horse, he had taught it to go on pawing the ground while he had his eyes on it, and to stop when he gazed elsewhere. The dog responded to another signal, a twitch of the glove held in the trainer's hand. In his letter Mr. Meehan suggested that the apparent mathematical skills of Clever Hans, the horse at the centre of a sensational controversy in Germany, might be explained similarly.

Hans was a young Russian stallion, acquired in 1900 by a man of sixty-two, Wilhelm von Osten. who had long been obsessed by the idea that animals, if properly educated, could develop a degree of intelligence similar to that of humans. He had already experimented with an aged, ill-tempered bear, which was unable to grasp even the simplest principles of number, and with a dray horse which had proved equally unteachable. With Hans, however, he found an apt pupil.

Von Osten began with rows of up to nine skittles, calling out the number of skittles in the row and thus teaching the horse to recognize numbers and to associate them with the words, one, two, three etc. Then he replaced the skittles with numbers written on a blackboard. When Hans was familiar with these, von Osten introduced him to elementary mathematics, and soon he was doing simple sums, followed by more advanced calculations involving square and cube roots. One of his early investigators, Professor Claparede, who spent several weeks putting Hans through his mathematical paces, wrote in the Archives de psychologie de Geneve that 'Hans not only knew how to do sums; he knew how to read, and in music he could distinguish harmonious sounds from discords. He also had an extraordinary memory; he could tell the date of each day of the week. In short, his performance was on the level of an intelligent fourteen-year-old schoolboy.'

In response to demands by his enthusiastic public following, Clever Hans was submitted to inquiry by a committee set up for that purpose. It consisted of professors of psychology, physiology and zoology, some cavalry officers, a doctor, several veterinarians and a circus manager. For five weeks they studied and questioned the horse, and did their best to catch von Osten out in some deceit. But even with his trainer out of the room Clever Hans continued to calculate and give answers with the same facility. The committee members then retired to write up their report, all stating that Hans had performed as well as had been claimed and that they had detected no trickery. They found themselves unable to account for what they had seen.

This did not at all satisfy the scientific enemies of von Osten and his horse, several of whom had stated in print that the pair of them were frauds, and who might therefore be open to libel actions if von Osten was vindicated. Among them was an eminent academic, Oskar Pfungst of the Berlin School of Psychology. Although notably prejudiced in the matter, he was considered the most suitable person to conduct a new investigation of the wonderful horse. Having done so, he published in 1908 a voluminous report in the form of a book, Der kluge Hans (`Clever Hans'), which dealt ruthlessly with all von Osten's claims. He declared that the horse knew nothing of figures or letters, and was totally unable to count, read and reckon, and that his skills were limited to recognizing slight, barely noticeable sounds or movements made by his trainer or by other people.

Herr Pfungst's report was exactly what many people wanted. It was widely acclaimed, and Hans and his owner were made objects of public ridicule. Von Osten protested in vain. Few now took him seriously, and he died in bitter disappointment the following year.

Hans, however, survived him and did much to restore his late master's honour. Von Osten had willed him to a sympathetic business main, Karl Krall of Elberfeld. Krall had his own ideas on animal education. Unlike von Osten, who had been impulsive and irritable, he was endlessly patient with his pupil, and under his gentle tuition Hans's abilities improved considerably. Krall then added to his stable two further stallions, Arabs named Muhamed and Zarif, and began to teach them. Muhamed in particular made rapid progress. In two weeks he had learnt addition and subtraction and the meaning of the plus and minus signs. Zarif was almost as quick, and it took both the horses only a few months to master mathematics, after which they moved on to spelling and sign language. For giving numbers, they had been taught to tap out units with the right hoof and tens with the left. Herr Krall devised a code in which letters and sounds were similarly represented by a certain number of taps with each hoof: A full description of the method is to be found in Krall's book, Denkende Tiere, ("Thinking Animals"), published in 1912. The horses were soon able to recognize and spell words and to use them in communication.

After he had acquired and educated several more horses, including a Shetland pony, Hanschen, and a blind horse called Berto, Krall was ready to open his stables for inspection by scientists. Singly and in groups, distinguished professors from all over Europe converged on Elberfeld. Krall and his staff absented themselves, leaving the inspectors to work with the horses on their own, allowing them every opportunity to judge whether or not trickery was involved. They were unanimous in concluding that the criticisms brought by Pfungst against von Osten could not be applied to Herr Krall's horses. To make sure that the animals were receiving no physical signals, either consciously or unconsciously given, the scientists arranged peep-hole tests, withdrawing from the stable to observe the horses through small glazed holes. Under these conditions the horses performed as well as ever.

Typical of the problems set by Professors Mackenzie of Genoa and Assagioli, of Florence to the horse Muhamed was to give the square root of 1,874,1611. The question was written on a blackboard, and the investigators then went out into the yard and peeped through chinks in the door to Muhamed's stable while he tapped with his hooves the correct answer, 1369. Questions to which the investigators did not know the answers were also put. Thus a committee headed by Dr Haenel asked Muhamed to give the fourth root of 7.890,481. He quickly replied, 53, which proved to be correct. Even the blind horse, Berto, who obviously could not receive visual signals, was able to solve more simple mathematical problems.

Moreover, having learnt a sign language, the horses would sometimes make spontaneous comments. On one occasion, during a lengthy Inquisition by Professor Claparede, Zarif suddenly stopped work and then tapped out the word, `tired', fo11owed by `pain in leg'. He also told Krall when Hanschen was beaten by a groom.

Frank Edwards, in Strangest of All (1956), quotes Dr Schoeller and Dr Gehrke on a touching episode which they reported during their experiments with the Elberfeld horses between 1912 and 1913. They asked Muhamed why he did not attempt speech instead of pawing with his hoof: The animal appeared to try to articulate. Then he tapped out the sentence, `I have not a good voice.'

Dr Gehrke tried to show him how he must open his mouth before speaking, and Muhamed showed he understood by signalling, `Open mouth'. Human utterance, however, was beyond him.

Zarif was then asked how he communicated with Muhamed. `With mouth', he replied.

`Why do you not tell us that with your mouth, Zarif?' asked the scientists. `Because I have no voice', signalled the stallion.

The tragic fate of the Elberfeld horses was to be called up for service on the battlefield in the 1914-18 war. None of them survived.

 

 

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