A few weeks before the Kentucky Derby some 25 years ago, the trainer for one of the leading contenders was interviewed on television and said that his horse was ready for the big race, not only because he was fast and fit but because he was smart and competitive.
I mused over that comment, wondering if some horses are truly smarter than others and if they really care about winning. If they are competitive and not just running hard because of their natural speed or because they are responding to the whip, does that mean that horses have egos? When they win, do they rejoice? When they lose, do they sulk and kick the stable door out of frustration? Is pride or self-esteem driving them, or is it simply that they understand that they might get an extra lump of sugar or a carrot by finishing ahead of the other horses? I further wondered if there is a positive correlation between intelligence and winning.
As I was writing for a daily newspaper at the time, I decided to explore the subject in my sports column. I hoped to get the answers to my questions “straight from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. Therefore, I called Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, then one of the leading thoroughbred stables in the country. They had produced the likes of the mighty Citation and the stretch-running Whirlaway, two of the all-time greats in the “sport of kings.” I don’t remember the name of the head trainer I interviewed, but I do recall his telling me that horses indeed vary considerably in intelligence and that the better horses are the smarter ones and those who have a will to win. It wasn’t clear to me whether being smart and having the will to win went hand in hand, and I couldn’t get a clear-cut answer as to how he knew those things; but I gathered it was simply intuitive on his part, something you come to understand by working with horses for many years. There was no indication that horses were subject to any kind of IQ or motivational testing before being groomed as top athletes.
In spite of the fact that the Calumet trainer seemed to know what he was talking about, I remained very skeptical. I remembered the Biblical story of Balaam’s Ass in which Balaam, a prophet on a mission to put a curse on Israel, was deterred by his mule, which stubbornly refused to transport Balaam; and when beaten by Balaam, the animal spoke to him and reprimanded him, apparently as directed by God. However, I was not inclined to take the story of a talking donkey seriously any more than I could believe in a serpent talking to Eve.
In researching the matter of horse intelligence, I came upon the Elberfeld horses of Germany. My boggle threshold was exceeded when I read that the Elberfeld horses could figure out square roots and cube roots, even fourth power roots of numbers of six or seven figures. Moreover, using their hooves to tap out letters of the alphabet, they could communicate in their native tongue, German, and even in French. Professor Edoward Claparède of the University of Geneva, one of many scientists who studied the horses, called the phenomenon “the most sensational event that has happened in the psychological world.”
As the well-documented story goes, in 1900, Wilhelm von Osten of Elberfeld, Germany (then Central Prussia) taught his horse, Hans, a Russian stallion (later called Kluger Hans, or Clever Hans), mathematics, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Von Osten first made Hans familiar with directions, such as right, left, top, and bottom. Then he would place skittles, or bowling pins, in front of Hans and count. He would then ask Hans to strike as many blows with his hoof as there were skittles in front of him. After a short time, the skittles were replaced by figures on a blackboard.
“The results were astonishing,” Dr. Claparède reported. “The horse was capable not only of counting, but also of himself making real calculations, of solving little problems….But Hans could do more than mere sums: he knew how to read; he was a musician, distinguishing between harmonious and dissonant chords. He also had an extraordinary memory; he could tell the date of each day of the current week. In short, he got through all the tasks which an intelligent schoolboy of fourteen is able to perform.”
After word spread of Claparède’s independent investigation, a scientific committee was appointed in 1904. The committee found nothing suspicious but offered no explanation. A second committee was then appointed, including Oskar Pfungst of the Berlin psychological laboratory. Pfungst reported that the horse merely obeyed visual clues, whether conscious or unconscious, given by von Osten. This became known as the “Clever Hans effect,” a term still used by animal trainers today. It was later revealed that of the 24 professors on the committee, only two of them actually observed Hans. The committee also stated that to accept such intelligence in horses would be subversive of the theory of evolution.
As a result of the committee’s report, von Osten became something of a laughing-stock in the community. When he died in 1909, he left Hans to Karl Krall, a friend who had taken much interest in the horse in spite of the committee’s report. Krall, a wealthy merchant, also bought two Arabian stallions, Muhamed and Zarif, and began to train them in the same manner von Osten had taught Hans. Within two weeks, Muhamed was doing addition and subtraction. He would distinguish tens from units by striking the latter with his right foot and the former with his left foot. By the end of the third week, he was doing multiplication and division; and by the time four months had passed, he knew how to extract square and cubic roots. Krall then devised a table with letters and numbers and Muhamed was soon spelling and reading.
Zarif was a little slower in learning, but was eventually able to do almost everything Muhamed was capable of. They could spell the names of their visitors, reply to questions put to them, and make little observations. Karl also trained Hänschen, a small Shetland pony, and Berto, a blind stallion with no sense of smell, how to count and communicate. He was unsuccessful with two other horses and an elephant. Meanwhile the aging Hans pretty much went to the back of the class, usually remaining in the barn, spending much of his time swatting flies with his tail.
Maurice Maeterlinck, a world-famous Belgian author, playwright, and Nobel prizewinner for literature, heard about the horses and decided to visit Elberfeld and observe them for himself. He was astounded. “I assure you that the first shock is rather disturbing, however much one expected it,” he wrote. “I am quite aware that, when one describes these things, one is taken for a dupe too readily dazzled by the doubtless childish illusion of an ingeniously-contrived scene. But what contrivances, what illusions have we here?”
After Maeterlinck was introduced to Muhamed, Krall asked the horse to spell his name. Muhamed began by rapping out an “H.” Krall then reprimanded the horse, but Muhamed continued with an “E” and an “R” before the two men realized that he was spelling Herr, the German equivalent of Mister. But Muhamed then struggled with the surname, first spelling M-A-Z-R-L-K. When told by Krall that it was incorrect, Muhamed groped a little before rapping M-A-R-Z-L-E-G-K. Krall then repeated Maeterlinck’s last name, and after two more attempts the horse spelled the name with one small error. The two men concluded that it was close enough.
Claparède had reported much the same experience with his name. After it was pronounced to him, Muhamed spelled it “Klapard.” When a newspaper editor brought a friend and introduced him as Tauski, Muhamed spelled out “Tausj.” When Zarif was asked to spell the name, he gave it as “Teauski” Maeterlinck was left alone with the horse as Krall tended to chores. Since the horses performed in the absence of Krall and gave some answers to questions that Maeterlinck himself did not know the answers to, he discounted the Clever Hans effect.
Another theory advanced was that of telepathy, as fantastic as the idea of a mind-reading horse seems. To test this theory, Maeterlinck took some large cards with Arabic numerals on them, shuffled them and placed them in front of the horse without looking at them himself. “Without hesitation and unasked, Muhamed rapped out correctly the number formed by the cards,” Maeterlinck wrote. “The experiment succeeded, as often as I cared to try it, with Hänschen, Muhamed, and Zarif alike.” Since Maeterlinck was the only person present and did not know the numbers, there was no mind to be read for the answers.
In one test, Maeterlinck wrote a surd—a number which had no square root—on the blackboard, not realizing that it was a surd. Maeterlinck looked to Muhamed for a square root. The horse lifted his hoof, paused, looked back at Maeterlinck and shook his head. This little test also opposed both the Clever Hans effect and the telepathy theory.
One day, Zarif stopped in the middle of a lesson by Krall. The horse was asked why and replied, “Because I am tired.” On another occasion he stopped again and explained, “Pain in my leg.”
Maeterlinck reported on tests run by a Dr. H. Hamel while Krall was on a trip. Hamel began by giving Muhamed simple math problems and ended with asking Muhamed for the fourth power root of 7,890,481, which Hamel himself did not know until after checking Muhamed’s correct answer of 53, which took about six seconds before he began striking out the answer.
Claparède asked Muhamed to give him the fourth power root of 614,656, to which the horse correctly replied 28 after a few seconds. However, when asked to give the fourth power root of 4,879,681, the horse incorrectly replied 117. When told it was wrong, he corrected to 144, also wrong. The horse then gave up.
On another day, Krall and a Dr. Scholler decided to make an attempt to teach Muhamed to express himself in speech. The horse made several feeble efforts before stopping and striking out the message, translated from the German to read, “I have not a good voice.” They then asked Muhamed what was necessary for him to speak. He replied, again in German, “Open mouth.” They asked him why he didn’t attempt to open his mouth, and the reply came, “Because I can’t.”
On another occasion Zarif was asked how he talks to Muhamed. “Mit Munt” (with mouth), he replied. Krall asked Zarif why he didn’t tell him that with his mouth, to which Zarif replied, “Because I have no voice.”
A New York Times article dated March 3, 1912, related how Zarif was asked for the date and correctly tapped out 25 for February 25. When asked how many days left in the month, he tapped out four, as it was a leap year. When asked how often leap years occur, he tapped out “every four years.”
Maeterlinck was clearly flabbergasted: “You rub your eyes, question yourself, ask yourself in the presence of what humanized phenomenon, of what unknown force, of what new creature you stand,” Maeterlinck reacted. “…You look around you for some sort of trace, obvious or subtle, of the mystery. You feel yourself attacked in your innermost citadel, where you held yourself most certain and most impregnable. You have felt a breath from the abyss upon your face. You would not be more astonished if you suddenly heard the voice of the dead.”
As might be expected in a world where academia is locked into scientific fundamentalism, most modern references to the Elberfeld horses write it all off as the Clever Hans effect, completely ignoring the tests which clearly fell outside the scope of the Clever Hans effect, such as asking for a fourth root when the experimenter himself does not know the answer and when the horse trainer is not present to quickly figure out an answer and somehow signal it to the horse. It should be kept in mind that Claparède, Maeterlinck, and Hamel were not the only scientists or scholars who studied the horses. Dr. H. Kraemer and Dr. H. E. Zeigler, of Stuttgart, Dr. Paul Sarasin, of Bale, Professor A. Beredka, of the Pasteur Institute, Dr. William Mackenzie, of Geneva, Dr. R. Assagioli, of Florence, and at least a half dozen other respected academicians observed them and apparently ruled out fraud, including the Clever Hans effect. Unfortunately, there is no indication that their reports have survived. They are simply referred to in the few surviving stories of the Elberfeld horses as being in agreement that there was no fraud and that the Clever Hans effect was not a satisfactory explanation. Moreover, it also must be remembered that Pfungst’s findings applied only to Hans and von Osten, not to Krall and the horses he acquired.
But fraud, whether conscious or unconscious, is the only explanation acceptable to mainstream science. Telepathy defies the mechanistic laws of orthodox science, while the possibility that horses and other higher animals actually do have an intelligence which approaches or even exceeds humans cannot, as suggested by the committee investigating Clever Hans, be reconciled with evolutionary ideas.
If not the Clever Hans effect, if not some other type of fraud, if not telepathy, if not true intelligence on the part of the horses, then what other explanation is there?
Maeterlinck suggested that the horses were mediums, much like human mediums, through which some higher power was working. As to why it was necessary to teach the horses in the first place, he opined that it would be like asking an automatic writing medium to do her thing without knowing how to write. Whatever it is that is influencing her needs the organism to be accommodating. “Unconscious cerebration, however wonderful, can only take effect upon elements already acquired in some way or another,” he explained. “The subconscious cerebration of a man blind from birth will not make him see colors.”
However, Maeterlinck was clearly not a spiritualist as he rejected the idea that discarnate humans were overshadowing or in some way controlling the horses. He had studied the reports of psychical researchers like Frederic W. H. Myers, Richard Hodgson, Sir Oliver Lodge, and others, and accepted the reality of mediumship. But he could not bring himself to believe in spirits, primarily because all the spirits he had read about in the research material seemed to be still groping and groveling, not existing in a much more enlightened state. The spirit hypothesis seemed too much like religious superstition for the “intellectuals” of the day; therefore, those, like Maeterlinck, who accepted the reality of mediumship preferred to believe that the so-called “spirit control” of the medium was a secondary personality buried away in the subconscious, and this secondary personality was capable of subliminally tapping into some kind of cosmic consciousness or cosmic reservoir for information. In some respects, it was more fantastic than the spirit hypothesis, but still more appealing to the “intellectual” mind.
While not suggesting there is any precedent for animal overshadowing or control by spirits, Archibald Campbell Holmes, a spiritualistic phenomena historian and author of the day, believed that spirit influence was the most logical explanation for the Elberfeld horses. He reasoned that if spirits can take control of tables by tilting them and levitating them, and, at the other extreme, take control of human mediums, there was no reason to believe that they couldn’t influence or control a horse. As to why they would do that is an unanswered question, although spiritualism teaches that there are many low-level and mischievous spirits hanging around the earth plane. Then again, it could have been a mathematically adept spirit who was experimenting or just having some fun.
There have been many anecdotal stories of birds and butterflies appearing regularly on window sills or otherwise acting strangely after the death of a loved one, as if to give a sign that the deceased person is still around. These stories also suggest some kind or control or influence by discarnates.
What can we believe about the Elberfeld horses? An open-minded, discerning person might easily conclude that the Clever Hans effect or conscious fraud of some other kind is the least likely explanations in spite of the fact that science has accepted it as the only explanation. To accept the position of mainstream science is to assume that distinguished men like Maeterlinck, Claparède, Hamel, and all the others who shared their observations were complete incompetents or were involved in some kind of devious conspiracy with the two horse owners.
But back to the race horses. It occurred to me that if a horse were really smart, he or she might find some folly in silly running games and refuse to compete.