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David Ashforth on the good old days when horses could talk and read

David Ashforth believes Red Rum would have been good at maths
1 of 1

First published on Saturday, January 30, 2010


Horses are magnificent looking creatures but not, I've always thought, very intelligent ones. Now, after reading some research findings on horses' intellectual abilities, I may have to change my mind.

The research was inspired by work carried out by William von Osten in Berlin. A mathematician, Osten began by experimenting with verbal commands and claimed that one horse, called Hans, was not only able to respond to spoken words but could also read and solve mathematical problems. His findings were treated with considerable scepticism but, after Osten's death, his assistant Karl Krall persevered with the training and research programme.

Krall has produced a book, called Denkende Tiere (Thinking Animals), which suggests that horses have far greater intellectual potential than is generally realised. Selecting horses with an aptitude for the exercises he designed, Krall taught the horses for between 90 minutes and 120 minutes a day. After three days, two horses, named Muhamed and Zarif, were able to recognise the numbers one, two and three and, when the numbers were written on a board, touch the appropriate number with their nose when the number was pronounced.

After ten days' coaching, Muhamed could count up to four, stamping his foot an appropriate number of times. After two weeks, he could do simple additions and subtractions and, later, multiplication and division. In time, the horses could deal with instructions in French and German.

Krall invited a group of professionals and academics, led by Dr Edouard Claparede, a psychologist at the University of Geneva, to study his work at his base in Elberfeld. There, he explained how he had taught horses to spell by using numbers to represent letters and gave a wide range of demonstrations. His star performers, Muhamed and Zarif, had different specialisms. While Muhamed was adept at dealing with mathematical problems, to the point where he could give the square roots of numbers, Zarif excelled at understanding language, and communicating. When the name 'Claparede' was spoken, and Zarif instructed to spell it, the horse sequentially pointed to the numbers representing Klapard. Not a bad attempt. Asked to try again, Zarif got even closer to the correct spelling.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Claparede was particularly impressed by Zarif's performance, and was satisfied that the horse's achievements were genuine. His verdict appears in the academic journal, Archives de Psychologie, in an article entitled Les Chevaux Savants d'Elberfeld. Writing first of the veteran, Hans, Claparede states: "He not only knew how to do sums, he knew how to read. He also had an extraordinary memory. He could tell the date of each day of the week. His performance was on the level of an intelligent 14-year-old schoolboy."

As to Zarif. "The certainty with which the horse acted," Claparede wrote, "the regularity with which he went from one letter to the next without any hesitation and without looking around to Krall at all, impressed me very much. Replies were given under circumstances which seemed to me absolutely to exclude the hypothesis that signals were given to the horses."

The climax of the demonstrations, which occupied several days, came when Muhamed correctly gave 1,369 as the square root of 1,874,161 and when Zarif was asked, "What is your name?" The horse pointed to the appropriate letters. Zarif was even asked why he did not speak, to which he replied, "I am not a good speaker".

Claparede concluded: "A horse can possess intellectual aptitudes of a much higher grade than those which he naturally makes manifest. Animals possess a potential reasoning power." Horses, he was persuaded, probably possess "true intellectual powers".

I don't suppose that Kauto Star is ever asked to divide 78 by 13, nor Denman required to spell Paul Nicholls. With the proper training, they might be able to do it. On the other hand, my confidence is tempered by the fact that Krall's book was published in 1912, the same year as Claparede's article. A year later, following a second visit to Elberfeld, during which Muhamed and Zarif failed to repeat their earlier triumphs, Claparede wrote a second article, Encore Les Chevaux d'Elberfeld, expressing serious reservations.

Even if Hans, Muhamed and Zarif were as clever as a cartload of monkeys, it didn't do them much good. They were all sent off to fight in the First World War, using their muscles rather than their brains, and none returned. Krall died in 1929, and Claparede in 1940. I still think Red Rum might have been good at maths, and Desert Orchid perfectly capable of spelling David Elsworth.


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After ten days he could count to four and after two weeks do simple maths
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