Beautiful Jim Key and Clever Hans have the answers
Horse sense Don’t underestimate the intelligence of these animals
● 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.
Turffontein tomorrow, Race 7:4 Amazing Strike, 3 Romany Prince, 9 Torro Rosso, 1 Hat Puntano