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.

Collateral Damage in Victorian Divorce

From Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review of Jane Ridley’s new biography of Edward VII in the NYRB.

In a scene too lurid for the trashiest episode of Downton Abbey, Sir Charles Mordaunt returned unexpectedly from a fishing holiday in Norway to find two white carriage ponies in front of his country house, and his wife Harriet talking to the Prince of Wales [Edward VII to be], who had given them to her. Bertie left hurriedly while Harriet rushed indoors, but she was dragged back outside by Sir Charles to watch as he shot the ponies.

Mordaunt went on to divorce his wife, forcing “Bertie” to appear in court and deny any connection. Poor ponies.

Dutch Stables: Horses in the Heart of Amsterdam

I went to Amsterdam last weekend to see friends I hadn’t seen for far too long, and ended up doing a little unscheduled horsey tourism. I hadn’t planned it, honest! I had no idea that Amsterdam had a nineteenth century riding manège right by its main park, nor that the building was still home to horses. And I didn’t realise until I wandered into the Van Loon House museum on the Keizersgracht that there was a beautifully preserved coach house and stables tucked away at the end of its garden. Maybe it’s the canals and narrow streets – boats and bikes dominate – but Amsterdam is not Venice, and there are plenty of cobbled streets once traversed by the thousands of horses that made the city on the Amstel function in the nineteenth century and earlier.

Van Loon House Museum, coach house

Van Loon House Museum, coach house

This palladian construction sits at the end of the garden of the Van Loon family’s townhouse. The house itself was built in 1672 and the wealthy Van Loons moved in in 1884, only departing in 1945. The coach house was home to up to six horses (cared for by two grooms, a coachman and a footman) and was enough of a source of pride for the family to take guests to view it. They also had country estates, and the stable has now been reconstructed using mangers from one of these homes. When in town, the family’s equestrian activities were probably confined to the Vondelpark, where they could ride or drive as the fancy took. There are some photographs of the family sleigh in the park, and the sleigh itself is sitting on the old brick floor, opposite a cabinet of harnesses decorated with the family colours:

Sleigh

Sleigh

And this is the charabanc, from the French for “wagon with benches”, also in the family colours (yellow and black). One of the Van Loons was hunting master to King William III, and his hunting horn is strung up on the stable wall, along with a black-and-white photo of a Van Loon lady leaping sidesaddle over a hurdle on an affable, old-fashioned-looking grey.

Charabanc

Charabanc

There’s also a model of the stable as it once looked – a family children’s toy, complete with saddles hanging on the partitions and horses with plaited tails. If you look closely you’ll even see the nameplates over each stall. I bought some postcards with old images of the stables, horses, grooms and coachman. The horses look just like Gelderlanders – chestnut or bay with backs as long as fire dogs.

Children's model stable

Children’s model stable

Mention of the Vondelpark led me to the Dutch Equestrian School Museum on a leafy, blossom-lined street just yards from the park itself. The large detached houses give way to this façade:
IMG_0953Slip under the archway and there’s a potent whiff of horse and horse by-products, a long corridor with a red carpet and a large door that opens into the Hollandesche Manege,  originally founded in 1744 and in its current form since 1882. It’s still in use as a riding stable and still hosts “carousels”. Here are a selection of blurry cameraphone shots (no flash) of the hall, foyer and stables: the grand staircase with its treads worn down by 130 years of riding boots, the loose boxes and their friendly (and hungry) inhabitants and the stucco decorations, with some visual depth added by a layer of manège dust. The foyer is the most beautiful riding “club house” I’ve ever been in (although most of the riding club houses I know where full of janky old heaters, dirty tea mugs and folded up horse blankets, but I digress). Alongside the pony club summer camp adverts, copies of Black Beauty and old plates of “Equitation Around the World”, is a huge nineteenth-century gouache drawing of gentlemen in top hats playing at quintain and running at rings. One of the information cards provided says that women were very much involved at the reopening ceremony in 1882, and there were sidesaddles for sale and on display. My ticket included a free cup of tea, so I sat on the balcony and watched the current crop of riders go through their paces before wandering out to the crowded Vondelpark and hunting for old bridle paths.

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“Phaeton Mania” and the “Knacker-Providers”: More Misery for Proto Black Beauties

The Phaeton Mania has been productive of a merciless infliction on horse flesh, for aspiring people, who cannot afford to keep a pair, will have a phaeton at any rate, and doom one unfortunate animal to do the work of two.
We now see at every corner of every street, and in every thoroughfare leading out of London those knacker-providers – four-wheeled chaises; well do they deserve this name, for they slowly but surely bring any horse, however good originally, to utter uselessness and decrepitude. These abominations have also been most justly termed kill-devils; the consistent heavy drag, at the worst possible angle, which requires the whole weight of the animal’s body, pressed forward, to move the lumbering load behind him, would destroy in six months the best horse that ever was “lapped in leather.” Husbands and fathers, with large wives and large families, never heed the torture they inflict upon the unhappy beast, but crowd one and all into the feeaton with a turn-over seat, and drive away their living cargoes to Clapton, Hackney, Turnham-green or Bow.
That diminutive quadruped, the pony, too, is enlisted in the barbarous [word obscured] and made now-a-days to do the work of a dray-horse [word obscured “]—on oss shay to Vest Vycombe and back in von day,” is mercy by comparison; these four-wheeled misery-making machines are fit for nobody by super-annuated spinsters and elderly gentlemen. It would be well if the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were to look after them.

Hampshire Advertiser and Salisbury Guardian, Saturday January 9th, 1841.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

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  • Where are we with burgergate? Rumours of Italian and Polish mafia involvement. (Guardian) Meanwhile the Independent reports that a newly enforced ban on horse- and donkey-drawn carts on Romanian roads may be responsible for the cheapness of equine flesh in the country. Folks, it’s GOOD for horses to have a job. (Independent)
  • “A most interesting and useful device.” What’s that? An odometer to tell you how far your carriage horse has drawn you. (Weird Universe)
  • A pony that was, according to official records, slaughtered last year, is found alive. (Daily Mail)
  • Horse-drawn carriages banned in Israeli cities (Haaretz)
  • Meanwhile, if you’re in New York on the weekend of the 23rd–24th March and you’ve always wondered what life is like for the carriage horses in Central Park, you should pop along to their open weekend. You can tour the stables, ask questions to your heart’s content and generally make up your own mind. (ClipClop NYC)

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

eBay, I don’t believe you. That never happened in my daydreams.

Right, on with a long overdue HHLHL! I’ve been busy organising a research trip for book two but the horse world went on turning, and lovely people have been sending me links, so enjoy this extra special post whose diversity reminds me why I’m writing that second book in the first place.

  • A zebra pulling a trap in Brixton, circa 1915. (Urban75)
  • Look at this beautifully carved golden horse head discovered in a Thracian tomb in Bulgaria. It dates from the third century BC. (Guardian)
  • If Radio 4 ever gets rid of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time I’ll know Britain is over. Here Melvyn and guests discuss the Upanishads – some of the sacred texts of Hinduism. Horse sacrifice is mentioned (maybe with a connection to the Steppes folk who first domesticated horses?) Thanks to Mum for sending this. (Radio 4)
  • The “Pony” chair of Eero Aarnio, the brilliant Finnish designer who came up with the Sixties icon, the Bubble Chair. (Eero Aarnio)
  • Francis Robinson send me this cute piece on a police horse who likes to rearrange cones at Buckingham Palace (Daily Mail)
  • Wired on the astonishing solidification of the Brony movement, with military personnel confessing their love for My Little Pony in front of the camera. Thanks to my brother for this one (Wired)
  • A clean drug-test sheet for all competitors at this year’s Breeders’ Cup. Some of the races were even lasix-free. (ESPN)
  • Mega race mare and US Horse of the Year Havre de Grace sells for $10,000,000 (Blood Horse)
  • The feral Chicoteague ponies survived Sandy just fine (Daily Press) Speaking of the hurricane, this crazy hoss was just fine too. (Washington Post)
  • Horses in today’s US military (CS Monitor)
  • A disaster for a herd of Brumbies in Western Australia (ABC)

If Wishes Were Horses: Diminutive Dianas

Here’s some Pathé footage of the International Horse Show at Olympia in 1920 (spot the hydrangeas and the standard lamp shades!), the King’s Gold Cup in 1921,  opening day in 1922 (plus side-saddle) and a little showjumping. You can just make out the backdrop of Lowther Castle in this film from 1923.

And this – now, how I wish I’d found this when I was writing the book! – this is a special clip of women, girls and their horses at Olympia in 1930. “Motorcars have not driven from Eve her love for a four-footed friend.” Quite right! And my goodness, the elegance of those top-hatted ladies riding side-saddle (there’s even an arena-level shot), the smart pony carriages and the girls in their felt hats. Towards the end of the film they all don costumes from the 1860s and climb onto stage coaches. Magic.

Karen Krizanovich alerted me to this site which features a “midget handsome cab” at Olympia in the 1920s: pony up front, little girl riding inside and boy playing cabbie.

World Horse Welfare have some biographical details about their founder, Ada Cole, here, while the horse home named for her is now managed by Redwings. Dorothy Brooke is celebrated by the aid organisation she launched to save old British war horses in Cairo; the Brooke has now evolved into an international charity which uses direct aid and education to improve the working lives of the donkeys, horses and mules that sustain the economy of the developing world. There’s nothing sentimental about the fact that the health of these animals can make a critical difference to the welfare of the families that own them.  I can’t endorse them strongly enough!

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.