I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus. In it I found a very interesting section on the horse known as Clever Hans. Here is the text from the book.
In the early 1900s a horse called Clever Hans became a German celebrity. ….When asked, “Hans what is four times three?’ Hans tapped his hoof twelve times. When shown a written message asking, “What is twenty minus eleven?” Hans tapped nine times, with commendable Prussian precision……Even when Hans was separated from his owner and complete strangers presented him with the questions Hans still got most of the answers right.
In 1907 the psychologist Oscar Pfungst began another investigation and finally revealed the truth. It turned out that Hans got the answers right by carefully observing the body language and facial expressions of his interlocutors.When Hans was asked what is four times three, he knew from past experience that the human was expecting him to tap his hoof a given number of times. He began tapping, while closely monitoring the human. As Hans approached the correct number of taps the human became more and more tense, and when Hans tapped the right number, the tension reached its peak. Hans knew how to recognize this by the human’s body posture and the look on the human’s face. He then stopped tapping, and watched how the tension was replaced by amazement or laughter. Hans knew he had got it right.
Clever Hans is often given as an example of the way humans erroneously humanize animals , ascribing to them far more amazing abilities than they actually possess. In fact , however, the lesson is just the opposite. The story demonstrated that by humanizing animals we usually underestimate animal cognition and ignore the unique abilities of other creatures. As far as maths go, Hans was hardly a genius. Any eight year old kid could do much better. However, in his ability to deduce emotions and intentions from body language, Hans was a true genius. If a Chinese person were to ask me in Mandarin what is four times three, there is no way that I could correctly tap my foot twelve times simply by observing facial expressions and body language. Clever Hans enjoyed this ability because horses normally communicate with each other through body language.What was remarkable about Hans, however, is that he could use the method to decipher the emotions and intentions not only of his fellow horses , but also of unfamiliar humans.Yuval Noah Harari “Homo Deus”
Moral of this story….never underestimate your horse’s power of observation and his ability to know exactly what you are thinking or feeling!