JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Tuesday, March 07, 2017


"I can always tell which is the front end of a horse, but beyond that, my art is not above the ordinary."
Mark Twain
I retain a few doubts about Hans. I agree that he was clever, but how clever was he, really? Hans willingly cooperated with the man who proved he was as dumb as a horse. That was not very smart. And if Hans could actually preform basic math, why don't we see more horses working in banks? Sure, Hans might have been an equine genius, even capable of reading human minds, but what are the odds the only genius human- mind-reading horse would be bought by a retired gym teacher who just happened to be anxious to prove that horses could memorize the multiplication tables? Perhaps I should rein myself in here, and start at the beginning.
"Horses do think. Not very deeply, perhaps, but enough to get you into a lot of trouble."
Patricia Jacobson and Marcia Hayes - "A Horse Around the House"
Right out of the gate, Hans just looked smart (above). He was handsome, sleek, athletic and big, almost a thousand pounds and five and a half feet high at the shoulders. His breed had been founded by Count Orlov who crossed Russian mares with Arabian stallions, to produce spirited trotters. And then Count Rostophin threw in three oriental stallions to breed gentle, empathetic riding horses. So popular was the breed that by 1866 nearly half of all horses on Russian stud farms were Orlovs. And by the end of the 19th century, they were even being sold in Europe.
"Small children are convinced that ponies deserve to see the inside of the house."
Maya Patel
The popularity of the Orlov is explained by the web site, InfoHorse.com (http://www.infohorse.com/ShowAd.asp?id=3693) ; “Possessed of amazing intelligence, they learn quickly and remember easily with few repetitions. There is often an uncanny understanding of what is wanted and needed of them....They can become extremely sensitive to the moods and emotions of their riders/owners, even reflecting them in self-carriage. Under saddle this makes for a partner of such willingness and awareness that traditional (dressage) exercises become poetry.”
"Horses are uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends."
Ian Fleming - Sunday Times of London, October 9, 1966
Which brings us to Wilhelm von Osten (above), a retired, grouchy, grumpy Berlin prep school mathematics teacher who believed that animal intelligence was sorely underrated. Beginning in the 1880's he attempted to teach simple math to a cat. The feline did not care scratch for his efforts, so von Osten switched his subject to a bear. The Ursula proved a bear market for von Osten's educational techniques. So in 1888 he bought a pony, whom he named Hans. Von Osten was giddy when, after a few weeks effort, when he wrote the number three on a blackboard, Hans tapped his right hoof three times. It seemed clear, to him at least, that he had harnessed the genius in the young stallion.
"It's always been and always will be the same in the world: The horse does the work and the coachman is tipped"
Old proverb
Von Osten now had the bit between his teeth. He asked Hans for the sum of three plus two, and the black beauty tapped his hoof five times. Eventually Hans was even figuring square roots and working with fractions. Hans even read a calendar, answering “, "If the eighth day of the month comes on a Tuesday, what is the date of the following Friday?” - something I would have trouble with. But there was more. Asked to identify a member of the crowd , Hans was able to tap out a name, using a complicated code chart, even though no one had told the horse the name. But after years of giving such public demonstrations before enthusiastic crowds, von Osten grew frustrated by official indifference. So, in the summer of 1902, he advertised for sale his “beautiful, gentle 7 year old stallion”, in a military newspaper. In fact Hans was not seven, and he was not really for sale, but the ad did mention, “He distinguishes ten colors, reads, knows the four arithmetic operations, etc.” That elicited the sought after response from cavalry officers, who stampeded to von Osten's house. They came prepared to mock but left impressed. Because of this growing support by such a respected segment of German society, within two years even the Minister for Education was singing Han's (and of course, von Osten's) praises.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him participate in synchronized diving.”
Cuthbert Soup - “Another Whole 'Nother Story”
The mockery poured upon the Minister for those statements finally achieved Von Osten's goal. A panel of 13 “experts” was herded together; a veterinarian, a circus manager, a Cavalry officer, the Director of the Berlin Zoo, some school teachers and the psychologist Carl Stumpf, The panel ran Hans through his paces, and when faced with Han's 89.9% accuracy, came to the unanimous conclusion there were no tricks involved. That declaration even made the New York Times chuckle (“Berlin’s Wonderful Horse. He Can Do Almost Everything but Talk.”) The German government was now facing a night-mare of public humiliation. So before declaring himself mentally un-stable, Stumpf decided to go one step further. He asked his assistant, Oskar Pfungst, to put Hans through his paces.
I'd rather have a goddamn horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake.
J.D. Salinger - “The Catcher in the Rye”
Pfungst designed experiments for Dr. Stumpf, and he now laid down four restrictions to begin a series of tests for Hans, to be conducted in the courtyard of the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. First Pfungst cut von Osten right out the herd. Then he put blinders on Hans, so he could only see the human asking the question. And then he varied whether the questioner knew the answer or not. The key turned out to this last bit. When the human was ignorant of the correct answer, Han's winning percentage dropped to just 6%. So Hans was only as smart as the human asking the question. That lead to testing the questioner. By closely watching the humans and not the horse, Pfungst found they were subtly and unconsciously tensing their muscles as Han's approached the correct answer, and showed a similar relaxation immediately afterward. Pfungst's theory was that Hans was watching for the same muscle clues he expected when a human was riding on his back. In his December 1904 report – "Clever Hans (the horse of Mr. von Osten) A Contribution To Experimental Animal And Human Psychology" - Plungst revealed, he could now “call forth at will all the various reactions of the horse by making the proper kind of voluntary movements, without asking the relevant question.” .
"Horse sense is the thing a horse has, which keeps it from betting on people."
W.C. Fields
But for me, von Osten's mane arguments were finally reduced to horse d'oeuvres when Pfungst used von Osten's techniques to train his own dog, Nora, to duplicate all of Hans' feats. Of course, having hitched his reputation to his halter-ego Hans, Von Osten bridled at the suggestion he was not a genius horse – Hans, that is. So he bolted for the exit - von Osten did, that is. He told a newspaper “one can hardly see in these experiments more than a kind of scholarly jest....” He retreated to his families' estate in Prussia. And there the bitter old man died, on July 3, 1909. He was buried at the Church of Zion (Zionskirchhof) back in Berlin
"If the world was truly a rational place, men would ride sidesaddle."
Rita Mae Brown
Hans, still as clever as ever, was adopted by Karl Krall, a wealthy jeweler in the west German town of Elberfeld. Krall was determined to prove Hans a genius, and the stallion continued to spend hours each day, now with two stall mates,  standing through interminable instruction and testing sessions. The horse genius was last heard of in 1916 when he was drafted, and probably died pulling wagons in World War One. Meanwhile, the "Clever Hans (in German “Kluge Hans”) Effect", still plagues researchers by producing false positive results by search, drug and bomb sniffing dogs, dolphins and primates used in language research and even human sufferers of autism. And I suspect it also occurs in contestants on American Idol.
"There are only two emotions that belong in the saddle; one is a sense of humor and the other is patience."
John Lyons
- 30 -

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