Beau­ti­ful Jim Key and Clever Hans have the an­swers

Horse sense Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the in­tel­li­gence of these an­i­mals

The Times (South Africa) - - Classified - By Mike Moon

● Horses might be clev­erer than we thought.

There were some smart nags in the old days – like Beau­ti­ful Jim Key and Clever Hans who could do arith­metic — but there was al­ways a sus­pi­cion their train­ers were trick­sters.

The pre­vail­ing wis­dom for cen­turies has been that equines are in­stinc­tive not cog­ni­tive as they are flight-not-fight crea­tures.

How­ever, new re­search on horse brain­power sug­gests we’ve misun­der­stood cog­ni­tion and per­cep­tion in horses. The US’s Equine Re­search Foun­da­tion says bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of horse be­hav­iour should bring a revo­lu­tion in the way we train them – fo­cus­ing on men­tal well­be­ing as much as phys­i­cal.

Hav­ing read that, I went back to the case of Beau­ti­ful Jim Key, a per­form­ing horse in the US in the early 20th cen­tury, fa­mous for read­ing and writ­ing, do­ing sums with “num­bers be­low 30” and cit­ing Bi­ble pas­sages “where the horse is men­tioned”.

Beau­ti­ful Jim’s trainer, “Dr” Wil­liam Key, was a for­mer slave, self-trained vet and pa­tent medicine sales­man. Key said he used only pa­tience and kind­ness in teach­ing his charge and had a spe­cial rail­road car built to tour him around the US. He wowed crowds at New York’s Madi­son Square Gar­den and Pres­i­dent Wil­liam McKin­ley said: “This is the most as­ton­ish­ing and en­ter­tain­ing ex­hi­bi­tion I have ever wit­nessed.”

Clever Hans, per­form­ing sim­i­lar feats in Ger­many in the same era, didn’t get such a smooth ride. Logic-minded Ger­man sci­en­tists sub­jected Hans and owner Wil­helm von Osten, a maths teacher, phre­nol­o­gist and mys­tic, to ar­rays of tests. A panel of 13 peo­ple, known as the Hans Com­mis­sion, pon­dered the mat­ter long and hard be­fore declar­ing they could find no ev­i­dence of tricks.

But then a killjoy named Oskar Pfungst pro­claimed that un­con­scious sig­nals were be­ing con­veyed from the trainer to Hans, giv­ing him an­swers to ques­tions. This be­came the “Clever Hans Ef­fect” that is still prat­tled about to­day in psy­cho lec­ture rooms.

But star­ing the pedan­tic Pfungst in the face was the ob­vi­ous fact of a very sub­tle, per­haps psy­chic, line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween horse and hu­man. He and his co­horts seemed not to re­gard this as re­mark­able at all and horses went back to be­ing a bit dim in the eyes of the world.

Of course, horse­men and women al­ways knew dif­fer­ent. They knew a slight ges­ture or the blink of an eye, or even a thought, could in­flu­ence equine be­hav­iour. Leg­endary trainer Monty Roberts has brought some of this ar­cane stuff into the spot­light.

Oh, the irony of us only now start­ing to prop­erly un­der­stand crea­tures that were so in­stru­men­tal in help­ing de­velop us into such a fear­some species. Now we hu­mans have no real use for horses.

Other than for plea­sure rid­ing. And rac­ing. Go along to Turf­fontein to­mor­row and get on the nags’ wave­length be­fore they race. Tele­path­i­cally plead with them to win and, if

They knew a slight ges­ture or the blink of an eye, or even a thought, could in­flu­ence equine be­hav­iour

they like the look of you, they might oblige.

The odds of this work­ing are not good and you might have to fall back on check­ing out the form.

In the main race, a pin­na­cle stakes event, the de­but of Ar­gen­tinian im­port Hat Pun­tano will be keenly watched. This horse won two Grade 1 races in his home­land and was en­tered for this year’s Dur­ban July, sigh­tun­seen.

Just about any of the 13 com­peti­tors could win this and, on sec­ond thoughts, ex­chang­ing se­cret comms with the run­ners might be the way to go af­ter all.

MIKE’S SE­LEC­TION:

Turf­fontein to­mor­row, Race 7:4 Amaz­ing Strike, 3 Ro­many Prince, 9 Torro Rosso, 1 Hat Pun­tano

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