I believe this is an example of art produced in Japan by Japanese artists turning their eye on foreigners and particularly westerners. Not much information is provided by Getty, but I think it’s from Yokohama c. 1900 and shows European trick riders doing their thing.
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.
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.
No headless horsemen, but a suitably atmospheric shot of an undertaker and black horse in funeral plumes in 1913 (which was obviously unlucky for some).
In The Age of the Horse I gave readers some idea of the ingenuity humans used to recycle the bodies of horses used in the nineteenth century west. Of course, this inventiveness was not restricted to the Victorian era nor to the more rapidly industrialised nations – and we’re still finding new uses for horses’ bodies. Here is a brief, morbid and often suprising list of them, from armour to face lifts.
As shelters in the eighteenth century by the Puelche and Pehuenche of Argentina and Chile. (Horse Nations: The worldwide impact of the horse on indigenous societies post-1492, by Peter Mitchell, 2015, p281)
The skin from colts’ and mares’ lower legs were used to make gauchos’ “bota de potro” footwear. (Mitchell, 2015, p282)
Drumheads; Blackfoot Indians, (The Role of the Horse in Man’s Culture, by Harold B Barclay, 1980, p177)
Leather for covering large boardroom and office tables (Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: Or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields by Peter Lund Simmonds, 1862, p364)
“Leather guards on [German] cavalry trousers”, carriage roofs or whip lashes. (The Horse-World of London by W J Gordon, 1893, p187)
Shoe leather or “porpoise hide” (“Horse Meat for Food” by Frank G Carpenter, The National Tribune, 19 January 1893, p9)
Saddles and boot tops (twentieth century America)
For making braided reins, bridles, girths, cruppers and whips in Kazakhstan. (Barclay, 1980, p319)
Bags and shoe soles in Mongolia (Barclay, 1980, p302)
Cordovan leather, shield and buckler parts, coat worn under armour, harness (Barclay, 1980, p133)
Distilled for use in lamps, etc. (Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: Or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields by Peter Lund Simmonds, 1862, p364)
Sausage skins, gut strings (Simmonds, 1862, p364)
Grease and bones burned for fuel on the Pampas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Barclay, 1980, p187)
“Lucifer matches” (Simmonds, 1862, p340)
Knife handles, phosphorus, super-phosphate of lime (Simmonds, 1862, p364)
Oil for candlemaking, leather dressing and lubricating. (Gordon, 1893, p186)
Ground and mixed with sulphuric acid for fertiliser, or simply ground into bone meal for manure making. (Gordon, 1893, p186)
Button-making (Gordon, 1893, p186)
Ribs and scapulae for smoothing clay pots, cannon bones for spear heads, jawbones to scrape leather thongs, pastern bones to make ornaments. (Copper Age Botai culture, Kazakhstan)
As necklaces by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)
Glue and gelatine (Simmonds, 1862, p364)
“Nithya” – a botox-like cosmetic treatment that stimulates the cells that produce collagen.
Hair of Mane, Tail
Tapestry making, girths, ropes, fetters, collars for horses and cattle, shoe covers, rain hats and fishing nets in Buryatia, Siberia.
Hair-cloth, mattress stuffing, woven into bags for crushing seed in oil mills (Simmonds, 1862, p364)
Furniture stuffing, fishing lines. (Gordon, 1893, p187)
Plaited to make ropes, nets, lassoes and fly whisks by the Yakut of Siberia, who also use it for decorative work and stuffing saddles. (Barclay, 1980, p327)
Tipi decorations among some Native American groups (Barclay, 1980, p177)
Clothing or harness decoration by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)
The shirts of penitents (Barclay, 1980, p133)
Mixed with rubber to create “hairloch”, which was used as padding for the equipment dropped into Occupied France for use by the Special Operations Executive in World War Two (The Women who Lived for Danger, Marcus Binney, 2002, p26)
As crests for helmets (Ancient Greece, Persia) and on war standards carried by the Mongolian Army.
Used in perfume making by the Blackfoot (Barclay, 1980, p177)
Boiled for men, dogs and poultry (Simmonds, 1862, p364)
Cat and dog meat (Gordon, 1893, p187)
Fed to animals on fur farms (Horse meat for fur farms: its chemical composition by Sedgwick E Smith, Washington, Department of the Interior, 1940)
Fed to zoo animals in Central Park (The Daily Yellowstone Journal, 2nd December 1887, p1)
Fed to hunting hounds (UK)
Fed to pigs raised at knackers yards and sold for commercial pork-pie making in the UK (Among Horses in Russia by Captain M H Hayes, 1900)
Trimmings turned into funeral wreaths (Luc Sante’s The Other Paris); bright blue dye (Simmonds, 1862, p340)
Gelatine, prussiate, “fancy snuff boxes” (Simmonds, 1862, p364)
Glue, blue-maker manufacture (Gordon, 1893, p186)
As pendants by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)
Armour – “These mares [the Sarmatians use] not only use for war, but also sacrifice them to the local gods and eat them for food. Their hoofs they collect, clean, split, and make from them as it were python scales. . . . These pieces they bore and stitch together with the sinews of horses and oxen, and then use them as breastplates that are as handsome and strong as those of the Greeks. For they can withstand blows of missiles and those struck in close combat.” (Description of Greece, Pausanias, translated by W H S Jones)
Button manufacture; albumen extracted and used for making photographs (Carpenter, 1893, p9)
For making cores/loose internal parts of casting moulds in foundries “in some foreign countries” (Simmonds, 1862, p368)
Collected, moulded into cakes for fuel and sold (China) (Simmonds, 1862, p369)
To insulate roofs (Copper Age Botai culture, Kazakhstan)
For making PreMarin, a hormone used to allay menopause symptoms and in feminizing hormone therapy for transwomen.
Boiled to preserve seeds, in a mythical Chinese pharmacopoeia.
Bezoar (a solid mass that forms in the digestive tract of some animals)
“It has the medicinal properties of settling fright and resolving phlegm, clearing heat and dispelling poisons. It is used to treat internal proliferation of phlegm-heat, manic depression (diankuang) and fright epilepsy (jingxian), malign poisons, ulcers and swellings, disturbances of consciousness, etc.” (Bencao gangmu, a Chinese Systematic Materia Medica by Li Shizhen, 1590)
Shipped to China, straightened and sharpened into razors (Carpenter, 1893, p9)
“Horse-shoe nails, kicked about the world by horses innumerable, are not the useless fragments we might naturally deem them. Gun-makers tell us that no iron is so well fitted for their purpose as that which is derived from horse-shoe nails and similar worn fragments. The nails are, in the first instance, made of good sound iron, and the violent concussions they receive when a horse is walking over a stony road, give a peculiar annealing and toughnening to the metal, highly beneficial to its subsequent use for gun-barrels” (Simmonds, 1862, p418)
If you’ve had your horse cremated, the cremains can be transformed into diamonds or glass jewellery as a keepsake.
Alternatively, the horse can be allowed to break down into compost.
May 1911: Disused harnesses hanging up in a stable after horse buses were replaced by motor buses. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)
The Equine Army is a BBC documentary about Britain’s horses and mules in the First World War, and the people who sourced, trained and handled them. It’s on BBC4 today at 8pm, and features yours truly squinting into the sun with a migraine. And some cavalry charging. And mules. And some fascinating stories delivered by historian Saul David.
If you’re interested in finding out more about women, horses and the Great War, here are two lovely long reads I prepared earlier.
If the history of humans and horses is your scene, you might like If Wishes Were Horses, which takes you from Lascaux to My Little Pony, with many nostalgic stops in between (Pat Smythe and the W H Smith Win a Pony contest, anyone?)
Tommy’s Ark is a collection of first-person accounts of animal life in the trenches of the Western Front, compiled and elegantly edited by Richard Van Emden. This story is from Captain Charles McKerrow, an RAMC attending the tenth Northumberland Fusiliers in 1916.
A very funny thing happened yesterday. One of our transport mules turned up in the transport lines of another battalion, covered with mud. It appears that this mule was affected with colic, right up near the line, three days ago. Llewelyn went out from our HQ and gave it a bottle of whisky. With tears in his eyes he returned to the others and said that the mule had drunk the whisky, given a groan (presumably of satisfaction) and died. He described very graphically how its eyes glazed and it shuddered. A burial party was sent out, but, as it was very dark, could not find it. They went out next night and again missed it. Meanwhile, the mule recovered and went home. Probably, being tight, it thought it had better go to some other transport lines. We are all roaring with laughter at the story.