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

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.

Stallions: a Bromance

What do horses like? Horses like food and being with other horses. Stallions are no exception – in the wild they are intensely social, but due to their high value and the way we keep our breeding stock, they are often kept in isolation, which works about as well for horses as solitary confinement does for people.
A few years ago the Swiss National Stud experimented by turning their stallions out together in the non-breeding season. This video shows what happened. Horse fights are generally of the “all mouth and no trouser” variety (featuring a side of “someone hold me back, Barry, or I’ll have him”), and these studs are no exception, but they soon settle down to synchrony, and harmonious grazing. Nobody got harmed, although one pair still seem unable to “leave it out, Barry” at the end of the film. But we all know people like that, don’t we?

PS. The sychronised prancing reminds me of the illustration in the banner of this blog. I’ve seen seventeenth and eighteenth century images of haute école horses performing all sorts of moves together at liberty in their fields – perhaps these illustrations weren’t so fanciful after all. Maybe the Duke of Newcastle et al just turned ’em all out together.

Do Horses Prefer Female Riders to Male?

Apinkhorse

“He’s a woman’s horse.”

“Women are more sensitive riders – they’re much better at handling horses.”

How often have you heard  this? I think the Victorian era might be the period when this notion became established. Writers like Trollope believed that “rarely [do men] have such hands as a woman has on a horse’s mouth.” When I wrote If Wishes Were Horses I wanted to stress that there was nothing biological in the fact that women currently dominate horse sports in many countries – I wanted to trace the social and cultural history behind the phenomenon instead.

Because of the “snob” value of equestrianism, women (of certain classes) were allowed to ride alongside men, and it gave them an outlet that was rare in a fairly repressive society. When it was clear that many women could ride well or even out-ride men, riding became even more appealing to women, and perhaps less so to some men. Now in some places this has become a self-reinforcing phenomenon, with boys pushed out by pink equestrian accessories and assumptions that horses are a “girl thing”. Nothing to do with anything physically innate in women.

We all know of men who are superb, sensitive riders, and of women who have hands like meat hooks. What about horses themselves? Do they distinguish between human genders in their responses? Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna set out to test this.
They sent male and female riders out around a jumping course and measured the stress responses of their mounts. They decided to test the stress responses of the riders, too. Their press release explains the results:

The results were unexpected. The level of cortisol in horses’ saliva increased during the test but the increase was not affected by the sex of the rider. The horses’ heart rates also increased as a result of taking the course but the increase was irrespective of the human partner in the saddle. The tests on the riders gave similar conclusions. Again, the level of cortisol in the saliva increased but there was no difference between men and women. The riders’ pulses sped up when the horses switched from a walk to a canter and accelerated further during the jumping course. But the heart rate curves for male and female riders were close to identical.

The full journal article is here, if you’re curious to learn more. Thank you to Andrew Curry for the tip off.

How to Spoil a Horse

“The thing is this,” said Merrylegs. “Ginger has a bad habit of biting and snapping; that is why they call her Ginger, and when she was in the loose box she used to snap very much. One day she bit James in the arm and made it bleed, and so Miss Flora and Miss Jessie, who are very fond of me, were afraid to come into the stable. They used to bring me nice things to eat, an apple or a carrot, or a piece of bread, but after Ginger stood in that box they dared not come, and I missed them very much. I hope they will now come again, if you do not bite or snap.”

I told him I never bit anything but grass, hay, and corn, and could not think what pleasure Ginger found it.

“Well, I don’t think she does find pleasure,” says Merrylegs; “it is just a bad habit; she says no one was ever kind to her, and why should she not bite? Of course, it is a very bad habit; but I am sure, if all she says be true, she must have been very ill-used before she came here. John does all he can to please her, and James does all he can, and our master never uses a whip if a horse acts right; so I think she might be good-tempered here.”

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell (1877).

… horses trained exclusively with negative reinforcement appear to make negative associations with humans, anticipating constraints they can’t control, said Lesimple. Certain training techniques and positions – as well as poor equitation style, especially of novice riders – can lead to chronic pain. Horses with chronic back pain showed more signs of depression, aggression, or learned helplessness (when they seem to “check out” of the environment that they have come to perceive as negative), she said.

“From their very earliest ages, horses develop an ‘appreciation’ of humans which is more or less positive, meaning that their perception of humans is associated with positive or negative emotions, but it is rarely neutral,” [French researcher Dr Clémence] Lesimple said. While the research provides a strong link between poor welfare and negative interactions with humans, there is a positive side to the research, said Lesimple. Improving a horse’s welfare can not only improve a horse’s relationship with humans, but when started from the beginning it can help ensure a lifetime of positive perceptions of humans on the ground, in management settings, and under saddle.

Study: Human Interaction Shapes Horses’ Negative Emotions, by Christa Lesté-Lasserre, The Horse.com, May 2015.

Talking on Behalf of Horses

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I’ve been thinking lately about horses and ventriloquy.

I want to write something about the talking horses of literature, from Houyhnhnms to Dick, the Little Poney, Tolstoy’s Kholstomer and Black Beauty. Why do so many authors want to give a voice to horses? What do we use them to say about horses, humans and the world at large? How has this changed over time and in different cultures?

In recent decades horsemen and -women have moved from ventriloquy to claiming that they are directly interpreting the horse’s true tongue: its body language. Many schools of thought offer interpretations of tail swishing, ear flicking and herd hierarchy, often promising training methods that are “natural” and will allow you to “communicate in your horse’s own language”. “Understanding your horse” is the key to harmony in these systems, and you are promised that you will be able to “talk” directly back to your horse and get him to do what you want without confusion.

Lately I’ve wondered if these new interpreters aren’t just the latest generation of ventriloquists, however well meaning. We can, after all, only guess at the real language of horses, as, like a dog’s sense of smell, it probably contains subtleties far beyond our ken. What if we are just projecting human interpretations onto horses all over again? That’s why I’m fascinated by this piece offering a scientific interpretation of Horse Whispering by Dr Antonia J Z Henderson (Horse-Canada.com). It will read as blasphemy to some, but it’s thought-provoking in the best sense. It never hurts to question orthodoxy, even when that orthodoxy has benevolent intentions.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Found horse, Berlin street.

Found horse, Berlin street.

First up: please go directly to Horse Nation to read Susan Corwin’s account of joining a hunt in Meath, Ireland to break the world record for the number of side-saddle attendees. Fans of Molly Keane and Somerville & Ross will enjoy the craic. This was Susan’s first choice of riding expedition after a gruelling course of cancer treatment. Turns out a thick application of Irish mud, a wilful Connemara pony and some very large ditches are just the ticket.

After about the second ditch, a very kind Irish gentleman handed me his flask and assured me that the more I drank now, the smaller the ditches would get, and the more I drank at the pub later, the bigger they would get.

And now on with the more mixed news of all that’s weird or worrying in the horse world. Not much light-hearted fun this week, I’m afraid, but some steps forward.

  • Burger King finds itself implicated in the horse meat scandal. (CNN) Which has probably been going on for over a year… (Telegraph) Meanwhile, Poland say that five of the six slaugherhouses that supply meat to Ireland have no traces of horsemeat on site. (Reuters)
  • Aqueduct racetrack in New York begins to cancel race days in order to try and get a grip on horse safety. Six horses have broken down on the turf course and been shot since December. More of the NYT’s excellent coverage of the lethal intersection of big, casino-inflated purses and medication abuse in US horse racing (NYT)
  • Denver International Airport erected a statue of a giant blue mustang with neon red eyes five years ago, and everyone hated it. Now that those five years have passed, locals are legally allowed to petition for its removal. Will it become a cult classic or a bad taste memory? (9News.com)
  • Danish scientists on the challenges and rewards of studying social hierarchy in horses. (The Horse)
  • I’ve covered donkey-milk soap as a beauty aid. Now Kazakhstan is getting in on the act with horse-milk soap. (Eurasia.net)
  • Emaciated and gravely injured cob youngster abandoned in an Essex playground. Photo not for the faint-hearted; the horse had to be put down immediately. (Thisistotalessex)
  • The number of ponies hit by cars on Dartmoor has risen with the poor weather: the ponies come to the roads for the sale that’s laid down to melt snow. (BBC)
  • An American man says he violated a horse because he was trying to make a “horseman baby”. (The Smoking Gun) And Germany outlaws bestiality. Good news for German horses, if not for wannabe centaur begetters. (NYT)

If Wishes Were Horses: Fear

Berlin, Altes Museum

Here’s a link to the study showing that horses’ heart rates increase as those of their human handler’s speed up.

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.