Clever Hans: A Horse, a House and a Little History

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Wilhelm von Osten was born into the German squirearchy in 1838 and went on to work as a maths teacher. He moved to the eastern Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg in 1866 and purchased a house at 10 Griebenowstraße. A befitted his background, he was a keen rider and huntsman with an appreciation of horses. When one of his carriage horses, Hans, seemed unusually observant of the logisitics of drawing a carriage around the city, he taught the horse to count to five by striking his hoof on the ground. This promising equine savant sadly died at the age of twelve, but his replacement, a black Russian trotter also called Hans, was to become famous worldwide.

Thanks to von Osten’s tuition – which involved a lot of carrots and bread – “Clever” Hans developed an extraordinary array of abilities. He would count by pounding his right hoof on the ground and concluding when he reached the correct number with a strike of his left fore. He nodded, shook his head, and moved his head to indicate up, down, right or left. His talents included

  • the ability to count up to 100 (sometimes higher) and work on calculations involving six decimal places;
  • the ability to spell (where “A” = one hoof tap, and so on);
  • the ability to change common fractures to decimals and vice versa;
  • the ability to read German, printed or handwritten (but only lower case);
  • an understanding of the value of all German coins;
  • an understanding of the calendar;
  • the ability to tell the time on a watch;
  • the ability to recognise people he knew from old photos;
  • the ability to identify musical notes and chords and whether or not they were “pleasant”;
  • the ability to pick out groups of people among the spectators – say, women wearing spectacles or men in hats, or even children climbing on nearby rooftops.

 One observer described von Osten as “extremely patient and at the same time highly irascible” and “fanatic in his conviction” that Hans was “capable of inner speech”. Von Osten tried to draw attention to his horse’s talents by posting advertisements in the military press. He gave exhibitions of Hans’ skills in the yard of 10 Griebenowstraße, and many came to watch and try to work out if the horse was really all his owner claimed. Word spread and the man and his horse became a global phenomenon.

Hans was turned into toys, featured on product labels and postcards and written into the lyrics of vaudeville songs. Not unlike his owner, he was also prone to stubborness – he had little respect for those who did not handle him with the same confidence as von Osten. He also bit, which perhaps isn’t that astonishing given the number of treats he’d grown used to expect from humans.

One local journalist, Fedor Freund, pointed out a curious aspect of the horse’s spelling: it was not merely phonetic. When von Osten read out the name “Treskow” to him he spelled it correctly, although it was pronounced “Tresko”. But though many sceptics visited and examined Hans, plenty of prominent and educated men admitted defeat. Head Berlin zoo keeper Ludwig Heck, whom you may have come across in The Age of the Horse, was one of those unable to determine Hans’ secret, even after a year and a half of concentrated study. Von Osten’s horse, it was believed, was intellectually “at about the stage of development of a child of 13 or 14 years.”

It was a team led by psychologist Oskar Pfungst that finally broke the spell in 1907. Hans was not “capable of inner speech” (well, not in any provable way). He was simply watching for changes in the posture and expression of whoever set him each task, whether it was von Osten or an independent investigator. Hans was “clever” because he had noticed that when von Osten relaxed, he only had to strike the ground with his left hoof to finish “counting” and then he would be rewarded. And of course, von Osten relaxed whenever Hans reached the right answer or sum. Presumably, over time the horse didn’t even need a carrot as a reward for this. He was adept in one language – that of the body.

A few years after his debunking, von Osten died, and Hans – rather like Black Beauty – had a series of new owners. This was a time of transition for horses – the beginning of the end of the use of horses for public and private transport – and the odds of ending up as sausage were high. Hans was conscripted into the army at the outbreak of World War One. He vanishes off the records in 1916 – killed in action, perhaps, or victim of disease or the desperation of soldiers.

When I was researching images for the Power section of The Age of the Horse I kept coming across black and white pictures like this one of families in inner courtyards in Western cities, proudly showing off their working horses. Our great-great grandparents often lived alongside their equine workmates or metres away from the mews and multi-storey stables that kept nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cities functioning. Berlin was no exception, and it’s still possible to see some traces of long-since demolished stables, like the parallel metal tracks for cart wheels that are laid in the entryways to some buildings from the period. The old brewery near me hasn’t produced beer in decades, but you can take special tours around the underground stables, which have been preserved. I’m told that one of the multi-storey stables – repurposed as housing – is still standing, but have been unable to locate it. When I realised that von Osten’s house was just ten minutes’ walk from my own, I set out to see if there were any traces of Hans left over.

I live in what’s known as an “alt bau” or “old building” very like 10 Griebenowstraße. Berlin expanded hugely from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and the same basic building unit was thrown up around the city. It consisted of five storeys (any higher and the fire brigade could not reach the upper floors) around a square courtyard, with cellars, high ceilings and large windows. In areas like Kreuzberg, Schoneberg and Charlottenburg, these buildings are hefty and grand, as Christopher Isherwood described them in the Weimar years, “shabby monumental safes” with “top-heavy balconied façades”.

In Prenzlauer Berg, these “rent barracks” were a little slapdash as the area’s population tended towards the working class. The front would have perhaps some stucco for the better off, like von Osten, and the wings and rear of the courtyard would be plainer.The courtyards sometimes contained small industrial plants, stables or other outbuildings. Often there was more than one courtyard; the record is seven, for a building around the corner from Clever Hans’ home on Kastanienallee, a model of which can be seen in the Deutsches Historisches Museum. These yards got progressively smaller and darker; many were demolished in slum clearances just a few years after they were constructed.

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Number 10 Griebenowstraße is on a corner of sorts near the Zionskirche. When I peeked into the yard I found a large shared garden, bike park and recycling area that was shared between an entire block of alt baus; only one outbuilding was still standing and, when I checked a map from 1895, it was impossible to see what else might have stood there, or if there were further inner courtyards. The outbuilding did not resemble anything that appears in the backdrop of the images of von Osten and Clever Hans. The building has been renovated with plain plaster and there’s not even a plaque to mark the story.

In his report on Hans, Oskar Pfungst concluded that “the horse’s ability to perceive movements greatly exceeds that of the average man.”  What interests me most is what he went on to say, because it’s one of those extracts that, like the ancient Taoist book, “Horses’ Hoofs”, can sound strikingly modern: What results, he asked, might a more horse-centric form of training and upkeep yield? And how could this benefit the horses themselves?

Our horses are, as a rule, sentenced to an especially dull mode of life. Chained in stalls (and usually dark stalls at that,) during three-fourths of their lives, and more than any other domestic animal, enslaved for thousands of years by reins and whip, they have become estranged from their natural impulses, and owing to continued confinement they may perhaps have suffered even in their sensory life. A gregarious animal, yet kept constantly in isolation, intended by nature to range over vast areas, yet confined to his narrow courtyard, and deprived of opportunity for sexual activity,—he has been forced by a process of education to develop along lines quite opposite to his native characteristics. Nevertheless, I believe that it is very doubtful if it would have been possible by other methods, even, to call forth in the horse the ability to think. Presumably, however, it might be possible, under conditions and with methods of instruction more in accord with the life-needs of the horse, to awaken in a fuller measure those mental activities which would be called into play to meet those needs.

One thought on “Clever Hans: A Horse, a House and a Little History

  1. Pingback: Haunted by Horses in St Petersburg – Susanna Forrest

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