We have seen, sometimes right here on this very blog, how horses can be trained to do marvellous things: leap through fire, lead the blind, and in many cases develop a bond with people so powerful that it seems the animal is actually reading and anticipating human thoughts. There have also been claims of horses which were said to actually be psychic, able to not only read human minds but also communicate those thoughts. Looking at those cases can tell us a lot about psychology (both equine and human) and the ways in which these two very different species attempt to understand one another better.
The earliest and probably best-known of these was Clever Hans, a Russian-bred Arab stallion purchased by Wilhelm von Osten, a math teacher and amateur horse trainer in Germany. According to Wikipedia (link above), “Hans was taught to add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, tell time, keep track of the calendar, differentiate musical tones, and read, spell, and understand German. Von Osten would ask Hans, ‘if the eighth day of the month comes on a Tuesday, what is the date of the following Friday?’ Hans would answer by tapping his foot. Questions could be asked both orally, and in written form. Von Osten exhibited Hans throughout Germany, and never charged admission.”
Psychologist Oskar Pfungst investigated, and found that Hans was reacting to ideomotor cues from von Osten; in other words, the horse was observing the humans and taking direction from his movements and posture; whether they were conscious or unconscious is debatable. Von Osten’s all-but-imperceptible tensing and relaxing told the horse whether or not he was pointing to the right thing. The kicker was that Hans could answer questions without von Osten present, but not when none of the observers knew the right answer themselves. This led Pfungst to conclude that the horse was an exceptionally good student of human body language and nothing more.
Lady Wonder and her owner, Mrs. Fonda
Lady Wonder, foaled in 1924 or 1925 and bottle-reared by her owner Mrs. Fonda, was a black Thoroughbred cross mare believed to read minds. She would spell out the answers to any question posed to her by flipping a series of blocks. The editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch averred:
In 1953, I stood before Lady Wonder and asked, “Lady, what is my middle name.” I remember maintaining a blank mind. Lady didn’t move. Mrs. Fonda said, “Lady answer the question.” Lady didn’t move. The instant I thought of the spelling of my middle name, Lady’s head moved to the keyboard and she typed it accurately. As a result of my experiences with Lady, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Lady possessed a psychic ability generally unknown and beyond our understanding in science. Clearly, there was no trickery or deception. We are honored to present these stories of Lady and Mrs. Fonda.
Lady Wonder’s other feats included spelling out the date on a coin held by a questioner, and appearing to know the time on a clock held against an observer’s body. Like Clever Hans, she was studied by a psychologist; Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine was interested in psychic research and went on to found the parapsychology lab at Duke University. Rhine believed that the mare’s amazing feats were due to telepathy. Lady was also investigated by famed illusionist Milbourne Christopher; as was the case with Hans, it was found that Lady only gave a correct answer when it was known by the observers and thus must have been reading human cues to guide her to the right response. How this squares with the editor claiming Lady “read” his middle name is anyone’s guess, however.
The case of Beautiful Jim Key is less well-known, although lately it has been enjoying a little bit of internet buzz. Foaled in 1889, Jim Key was a Standardbred/Arab cross stallion owned by former slave “Dr.” William Key, a self-trained veterinarian. Like Lady Wonder, Jim Key was hand-raised by humans; this early experience no doubt taught both horses to be particularly sensitive to human behaviour. From his official website: “Said to have an i.q. equivalent to a human sixth grader, Jim exploded onto the national scene in 1897 by demonstrating inexplicable abilities to read, write, spell, do mathematics, tell time, sort mail, use a cash register and a telephone, cite Bible passages, and debate politics. For the next nine years, he performed in nation-wide expositions and world’s fairs to wildly receptive crowds, smashing box office records, overcoming hurdles of prejudice and skepticism, all the while winning rapturous praise from the press and such leaders as President McKinley and Booker T. Washington.”
Beautiful Jim Key and “Dr.” William Key
Touted as “the smartest horse in the world” and said to be valued at more than one million dollars, Jim was exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (admission price to see him: fifteen cents):
Mim Eichler Rivas has written a book about Beautiful Jim Key, revealing that the horse’s notoriety led to thousands of schoolchildren pledging to always be kind to animals, and helped boost the nascent animal welfare movement. I haven’t read the book yet, so can’t comment, nor have I been able to find out what investigations, if any, were carried out with Jim.
These cases, spanning the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, were spurred by Darwinism (which led to questions about the nature of animal intelligence) and the growing field of psychology, particularly behaviorism. Hans, Lady Wonder and Jim Key exhibited, to an exquisite degree, the innate equine ability to observe and respond to nonverbal behaviour. “Horse whisperers” have built their fortunes on exploiting this ability as if it were a new discovery, ignoring centuries of horse training tradition which say the same thing. Other animals have been taught to communicate with humans; Koko the gorilla is probably the most famous example. She has learned more than 1000 signs based on American Sign Language, and can apparently understand over 2000 words of spoken English. Humans seem to have an innate need to reach out to other species; attributing special powers to animals would seem to do them a disservice, as their natural abilities are amazing enough without embellishment.