The Browser Review Daily Letter 145

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The Thinking Horses Of Elberfeld


The Times,  4th July 1913

LONDON — At a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research, held yesterday afternoon at 20, Hanover-square, a most interesting report on the “thinking horses” of Elberfeld was made by two gentlemen specially deputed by the society to inquire into the real or supposed powers of these animals. The investigation was made by Mr. Edward Bullough, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and Mr. V. J. Woolley, M.D:, who visited Elberfeld last March for this purpose.

These horses have aroused in the last year or two a great deal of curiosity in Germany, France, and Italy. The polemics caused by them have occasionally reached an extraordinary degree of heat and acrimony, and the controversy is far from being at an end. The investigation by Messrs. Bullough and Woolley, although made at a season not very favourable for the inquiry, was sufficiently suggestive in its results to stimulate them to further observation which they hope to undertake in September.

Mr. Bullough, in his communication, made a cursory retrospect of the “thinking horse” problem. He explained how, in 1890, a certain Herr von Osten, a retired mathematical schoolmaster living in Berlin, observed that a horse which he used to ride and drive responded apparently intelligently to demands. He took up the idea of perfecting this rudimentary education.

After a short period of training he succeeded in obtaining perfect responses to orders such as “Stop”, “Turn to the right”, “Walk”, “Trot”, &c, and was able to drive his horse without touching the reins, by vocal directions alone, along even the crowded thoroughfares of Berlin.

The success of this teaching suggested to him the idea of putting his horse through a regular course of instruction, when the horse, subsequently known as “Hans I”, died. In 1900, reverting to his plan, he bought a five-year-old Russian stallion, who, again called “Hans”, was destined to become the pioneer of equine education — “der kluge Hans”.

This horse achieved such remarkable proficiency in arithmetic, spelling, and so forth as to excite great curiosity. A commission was appointed to investigate the phenomenon, and came to the conclusion that von 0sten, while believing himself to be teaching Hans the rudiments of arithmetic, reading, spelling, etc., had really simply taught the horse to respond with astounding certainty and precision to certain unconscious and extremely small movements on his own part.

In 1905, however, he came into contact with Mr. K. Krall, of Elberfeld. Mr. Krall is a man of about 50 years of age, born and bred at Elberfeld, where he owns a large jeweller’s business. He had never handled horses, and only became interested in them in their educational possibilities and the scientific aspect of the matter through von Osten and his “clever Hans”.

He worked with Hans, became convinced that the animal possessed genuine intelligence, and decided to try experiments of his own on horses which, pedagogically speaking, were still virgin soil, and had not been spoiled by continual performances, experiments, and investigations.

He therefore bought in 1908 two Arab Stallions, Mahomed and Zarif, and began instruction on the lines of von Osten. The horses received a systematic course of instruction, exactly of the character of elementary school teaching. Spatial relations, counting, addition and subtraction, the multiplication table up to 12 times 12, and division, date reckoning, squaring and the extraction of roots, reading, and spelling were successively explained and demonstrated.

The progress of the horses was rapid beyond expectation. When the horses had made such progress in arithmetic, reading, and spelling as to suggest that they had become fairly familiar with language, Mr. Krall instituted object lessons, at which pictures, portraits, and other objects were displayed, discussed, and explained.

He is of opinion that mere arithmetical performances in themselves are no test of intelligence, since it is well known that even mentally deficient human beings are capable of performing the most remarkable calculating feats. He was, therefore, anxious to use arithmetic only as an avenue to mutual understanding and as a basis for spelling, reading, and especially of spontaneous utterances on the past of the horses.

These, he thinks, would go further than calculations in placing the intelligence of the horse beyond doubt, besides possibly furnishing some of the much-needed introspective evidence on animal psychology. He told the investigators of several instances of such spontaneous utterance which, granting the initial assumption of intelligence, were certainly interesting in the highest degree.

Method Of Training

The first step in the training was to tame the animal — i.e., to make him familiar with his master, and, above all, to captivate his attention by caresses, carrots, and other signs of affection. The second and far more difficult stage was to teach the animal to control his movements so as to adapt them to responsive expressions, or rather to render the animal conscious of them.

This appears to be a step which some of the animals find great difficulty in taking. Another of the horses, Amasis, who has been taught for about six months, seems to be constitutionally unable to acquire any such control. He stamped extremely well and appeared very attentive, but could not get himself to stop at the right number, counting six or seven instead of five, eight or nine instead of seven, unless Mr. Krall counted aloud with him.

Assuming that the horses had a conception of number, as the investigators were inclined to think after some rather striking performances they witnessed, it was developed during this stage of their education, in the form of movement-images. Mr Krall explained to his horses all the rudimentary procedure of addition, subtraction and multiplication, and was greatly astonished at the ease and quickness of their understanding – for example, in grasping the difference between 3×2 and 32.

But he purposely did not go beyond the explanation of simple problems. He intentionally left the horses to themselves to see what they would make of more complex ones. He himself did not know by what methods the horses extracted roots beyond √144, the highest square which he had taught them.

The same might be said of the spelling. With the aid of a simplified spelling-table the horses learnt to spell, each letter being represented, by a number. The association between each letter and a certain number being once formed, the spelling of words written on the black-board was merely a matter of memory.

Something far more complicated, and far more interesting, but at present inexplicable, was achieved when the horses began to spell out spontaneous statements. After many attempts to teach the horses the complicated German orthography, Mr. Krall finally left them to their own devices, which produced a very erratic but sometimes ingeniously phonetic spelling. Thus they spelt essen, to eat, as “sn”, and gehen, to go, “gn”.

Encouraged by his success with these horses, Mr Krall attempted the education of others, besides an Algerian donkey. The latter proved intelligent enough, but so obstinate that his education had to be abandoned. With the other horses he had similar, though varying, experiences. Amasis and Harun, another Arab stallion, proved poor learners. A Shetland pony, Hänschen, whom they saw and worked with. was an intelligent but scatter-brained little fellow, still in the elementary stage of arithmetic.

The latest accessions to the establishment were a baby elephant and a German pointer, who arrived during their visit.

The most important late-comer among Mr Krall’s scholars was a blind horse, Berto, a Mecklenburg stallion of a charger type, whom he had the good fortune to pick up in September 1912. His work was limited to elementary arithmetic; he reacted to spoken problems, but would also answer simple questions written on his flank, a procedure which was described by Dr Woolley in detail in his contribution.

Dr Woolley, in his report, said that the possibilities they had to consider when they set out to investigate the capacity of the horses were roughly four – (a) the horse might really possess the intellectual abilities ascribed to them by their owner; (b) they might be this time have learned by heart the answers to all the problems which they could present to them; (c) they might respond to signals given consciously or unconsciously by some person present; (d) they might respond to some supernormal influence exerted by some such person.

They very much regretted that they were not in a position to give any definite solution of the problem. All the could do was to give some account of their experiments, and to point out the difficulties in the way of accepting any one of these hypotheses.

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