Elberfeld Horses
The mathematical wonders of the animal world in Elberfeld,
Germany. The case was described by E. Clarapède, of Geneva
University, as ‘‘the most sensational event that has happened
in the psychological world.’’
The discovery of equine mathematical genius was made by
William von Osten in 1891. The horse ‘‘Kluge Hans’’ (Clever
Hans) was taught to count skittles (pins used in the bowling
game of ninepins) by striking with his hoof as many times as
there were skittles on the table. Von Osten first pronounced the
numbers aloud and later wrote them on a blackboard. The results
soon proved to be astonishing. The horse began to perform
mathematical operations.
In 1904 von Osten invited cavalry officers to witness his experiments
and exhibited the feats of Clever Hans without
charge. As a result of the publicity that these performances attracted,
scientists began to take an interest in the subject of animal
intelligence. A scientific committee headed by C. Stumpf
(director of the Institute of Psychology at Berlin University) investigated
Clever Hans in 1904 and did not find trickery.
Their report was attacked by Albert Moll, a dogmatic specialist
in hypnotism. Moll had visited Elberfeld and, as is often
the case with unsympathetic or prejudiced observers, every experiment
he made was a failure. He theorized that this proved
that the animal could only perform the tasks by noting infinitesimal
signs from the trainer or other persons present, and
without any firm evidence Moll persuaded Stumpf to change
his mind. A second committee reached a more positive conclusion
concerning the horse’s abilities. Thereafter, although Moll
was not on either the first or second investigating committee,
the myth of the ‘‘Clever Hans Error’’ of overlooking ‘‘unconscious
signaling’’ passed into the psychology textbooks.
This view was reinforced by Stumpf’s assistant Oskar
Pfungst, who, with the permission of von Osten, conducted his
own experiments with the horse. Pfungst virtually took over the
horse’s training, eliciting any response he desired by movements
of his head, eyes, or hands. Eventually the horse paid little
attention to its groom or even to its master. Pfungst’s publication
of his detailed experiments duly ‘‘proved’’ the
unconscious signaling theory of Moll and gave scientific credence
to the claim that animals cannot think. Even in modern
times, Pfungst’s work is cited as a model of reliable scientific investigation,
although some years after publication of his work
Pfungst himself was aware that it was not above criticism. In his
book Clever Hans (1911) he writes
‘‘Someone could say that the horse had only been ‘mechanized’
and rendered useless for independent thinking by our
experiments, and that previously the horse had been able to
count, and simply became accustomed in my lessons to the bad
habit of following my signals. But Herr von Osten never
achieved results without error, as I did in my experiments.’’
The conclusion that, consciously or unconsciously, Pfungst
retrained the horse to fit his own theories seems a likely one.
Von Osten became an irritable recluse, convinced that his
lifework had been destroyed. In a newspaper article of August
1904 he states ‘‘In spite of everything one can hardly see in
these experiments more than a kind of scholarly jest which has
no special value for science or practical life.’’ He died in 1909.
The horse Clever Hans passed to Karl Krall, a jeweler in Elberfeld,
who decided to continue von Osten’s work and disprove
the unconscious signaling theory. In his stables near
Wuppertal, Krall taught four more horses ‘‘Muhamed,’’
‘‘Zarif,’’ ‘‘Berto,’’ and ‘‘Hänschen.’’ The last horse was blind
and clearly unable to perceive visual signals but learned to calculate
as rapidly as the other horses. Krall also put blinders on
the eyes of the others during lessons so that they could only see
a blackboard and not their trainer. At times he gave lessons in
complete darkness. Krall improved on von Osten’s training by
introducing a phonetic system for language communication.
The horses not only learned the fundamental mathematical
operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division,
but after only four months’ training they extracted square
and cube roots. They answered questions by stamping with
their hoofs. To give the number 34, for instance, they struck
three times with the left and four times with the right hoof.
Krall’s book Denkende Tiere (1912) stirred the world of science.
Commissions and investigators from all over the world journeyed
to the stables. Many scientists persisted in stubborn negations;
others went away in awe and wonder. One committee
of 24 scientists could not tolerate the suggestion that horses
could calculate like men, which would be ‘‘subversive of the
evolutionary theory.’’ They drew up a document of protest
against the facts reported earlier by the investigator Clarapède,
although in fact only two of the scientists on the committee had
ever seen the horses.
The famous author Maurice Maeterlinck paid a visit. The
horse Muhamed, after a formal introduction, phonetically
spelled out his name with his hoofs and solved almost instantaneously
problems to which even Maeterlinck did not know the
answer, refused to give the square root of a chance number that
was afterward found to have none, and even expressed
thoughts and feelings by spelling. On one occasion Muhamed
complained, ‘‘The groom struck Hänschen.’’
Unless one is prepared to discount the evidence of Maeterlinck
and the many distinguished scientists who confirmed that
the horses could correctly answer questions when the answer
was not even known to the inquirer, the ‘‘unconscious signaling’’
theory of Pfungst must be considered unproved. His own
detailed experiments with Clever Hans and other animals,
however consistent in results, probably proved what he expected
them to prove and so cannot be considered impartial or definitive.
There are some interesting aspects about Krall’s horses.
Sometimes they gave messages that they were tired and would
not answer. Sometimes they could not answer quite simple
questions, such as the number of individuals present. If uncertain,
they made a timid blow with their hoofs, and generally
their intelligence and behavior appeared to be on the level of
a six- to eight-year-old child.
In the experiments, care was taken to exclude the possibility
of mind reading. As a precaution to prevent ‘‘unconscious signals,’’
the questions were sometimes asked by telephone, the
receiver being hung on the ear of the horse; frequently the
problem was written on the blackboard and the horse left alone
to solve it. Sometimes the figures were traced with a finger on
the back of the animal. It is a curious fact that after six months
of schooling, the horses made no further progress. They could
only do what they had been taught, and they appeared to do
it without any conscious effort.
No satisfactory conclusion was ever reached, although in
more recent times experiments have been conducted on communication
between human beings and dogs, chimpanzees, gorillas,
and dolphins. Where there is a strong and friendly relationship
between teacher and animal, the results indicate
animal intelligence, although not amenable to formal scientific
validation. An interesting development is the attempt to bypass
tapping and language codes by establishing direct communicaElbegast
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
tion with the animal’s mind, as suggested in the work of Barbara
Lysedeck in the United States.
The horses of von Osten and Krall were not the first to appear
to demonstrate intelligent communication. As early as
1591, in Shropshire, England, a certain Master Banks exhibited
a white horse named ‘‘Morocco’’ that communicated by tapping
with his hoofs, apparently able to tell how much money
was in a spectator’s purse. Shakespeare referred to the animal
in his play Love’s Labour’s Lost (act 1, scene 2). It is possible that
this particular case was one of fake ‘‘mind reading’’ similar to
modern mentalist stage shows, but according to dramatist Ben
Jonson, Banks and his horse were later burned at the stake for
In the twentieth century the ‘‘mind-reading horse ‘Lady
Wonder’’’ was investigated by parapsychologist J. B. Rhine in
the winter of 1927–28. The horse gave answers to questions by
touching her nose to letter or number blocks and seemed to be
most successful when her owner, Claudia Fonda, was near.
Rhine concluded that Lady Wonder was responding telepathically.
Professional magician Milbourne Christopher believed
that the horse was receiving visual cues from Fonda.
At any rate the evidence for the genuineness of the Elberfeld
horses is strong, even if opposed by various scientists like
Pfungst. Many scientists testified to the reality of the phenomena.
Other favorable testimony came from members of the International
Society of Animal Psychology.
The psychical researcher Count Cesar De Vesme speculated
that the Elberfeld horses may have solved their problems in
a mediumistic way, since they often spelled in the reverse
order, suggesting mirror-writing, which is a characteristic of
automatic scripts. De Vesme did not mean to suggest the intervention
of spirits, but something like a manifestation of an
equine subliminal self by motor automatism, unhampered by
the limitation of the animal brain. Curiously enough, the system
of communicating by tapping of hoofs is strongly reminiscent
of table-turning séances.
Krall also experimented with training a young elephant, but
the animal refused to learn. Since then, attempts have been
made to teach dogs to communicate in a manner similar to that
of Krall’s horses. Between 1974 and 1975 two dogs, ‘‘Elke’’ and
‘‘Belam,’’ were given some 500 lessons by Dorothy Meyer in the
Berchtesgaden region of Bavaria. The dogs were owned by
Hilde Meilmaier, founder of a dog school. For an account of
the impressive achievement of these dogs see Maurice Rowdon’s
1978 book The Talking Dogs.
Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers, and Psychics. New York
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970.
Gaddis, Vincent, and Margaret Gaddis. The Strange World of
Animals and Pets. Cowles, 1970. Reprint, New York Pocket
Books, 1971.
Kindermann, Henny. Lola; or, the Thought and Speech of Animals.
New York E. P. Dutton, 1923.
Krall, Karl. Denkende Tiere. Leipzig, 1912.
Maeterlinck, Maurice. The Unknown Guest. London, 1914.
Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books, 1975.
Pfungst, Oskar. Clever Hans (The Horse of Mr. Von Osten) A
Contribution to Experimental Animal and Human Psychology. New
York, 1911. Reprint, New York Holt, Rinehart & Winston,
Rhine, J. B. ‘‘An Investigation of a ‘Mind-Reading’ Horse.’’
Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 23 (1929).
Rowdon, Maurice. The Talking Dogs. New York Macmillan,
Woodhouse, Barbara. Talking to Animals. Croxley Green, England
Campions, 1970.