Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/February 1913/The Abilities of an Educated Horse


By Professor M. V. O'SHEA


DURING the last few years a number of "educated" horses have been prominently before the public, alike in this country and in the old world, and they have received enthusiastic praise from all sorts of people. Doubtless some readers of this article saw and admired Blondine, who exhibited his "marvelous" powers continuously during the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo. Many distinguished people paid him a visit; and observing his performances, they went away to tell astounding tales of his intellectual acumen. The testimonies of men eminent in politics, in war, in business, and in the professions were daily published at the door of Blondine's pavilion; and the writer remembers reading the hearty commendations of this "educated" horse by President McKinley, Admiral Schley, and a long list of persons celebrated in various walks of life. The press of the country described the readiness and accuracy with which Blondine could add, subtract, multiply and divide large numbers; how he would interpret commands given to him, such as to take a handkerchief to a particular lady in a company; how he could spell words given him by members of his audience; how he could read simple sentences; and how he could perform other mental feats which we have been accustomed to think are impossible except for an intelligent human being.

Leaving aside the "educated" horses of other days and of other countries, it is the intention here to describe the intelligence of King Pharaoh, which has probably attracted more attention than any other horse of recent times. He has appeared before notable people and vast audiences in every section of this country. He has received unqualified praise for his abilities from newspaper and magazine writers, and from such persons as Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Governor Eberhardt, of Minnesota, and others of like distinction. His trainer, Dr. Boyd, of Columbia, South Carolina, claims that we have at last an animal with genuine human intelligence, as shown in his interpretation of oral and written language, his mathematical calculations, his reading of human character, and similar achievements.

The writer, who had made some observations respecting Blondine's powers as revealed in his exhibitions in Buffalo, was able to make an investigation of King Pharaoh's abilities in November, 1911. An educational convention was in session in Miles City, Montana. King Pharaoh with his trainer and retinue of attendants happened to be passing through to the Pacific coast at the time. The train was halted at Miles City, and Dr. Boyd was asked whether he would permit the writer to make a test of King Pharaoh's reputed human intelligence, and he readily consented to this. It was stipulated that the trainer should first exhibit the horse in the presence of a body of twenty-five observers, these to be chosen mainly from the educators in attendance at the convention, after which the writer would take control of King Pharoah, and his trainer and care-takers should leave the building, so that they could not influence the horse in any way during his performances. These conditions were agreed to by Dr. Boyd.

King Pharaoh is a small pinto stallion. He has an unusually large head for his size. The trainer called special attention to this trait before beginning his performance with the horse. He also dwelt upon the remarkable success which King Pharaoh had had in all of his exhibitions. He mentioned the people of prominence who had "studied" him, and who had commended him, putting special emphasis upon the testimony of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Governor Eberhardt. Whether the trainer intended it or not, it was apparent that his remarks predisposed the observers in the horse's favor. One could see that they were much interested in King Pharaoh's large head, which indicated, of course, in accord with popular belief, that he must be intelligent. "Large head = superior intelligence" is the simple logic of the uncritical observer; and such a person will be partially convinced before he sees the horse in action at all. Then when great men, no matter in what department they may have achieved distinction, testify in favor of anything, the majority of people no longer maintain a genuinely critical attitude toward it. This is the result which the trainer must have known would issue from his remarks, though he may not have made them for this explicit purpose.

It should be stated at this point that the trainer had carefully arranged the setting of the stage before King was brought in. He had placed a blackboard on an easel; and at four or five yards to the left there was a rack ten feet long on which could be placed in upright position ten letters or ten numbers printed on blocks that could be easily knocked down. The letters and figures were printed on both sides of the blocks, so that the horse and the trainer could see them, and the audience could also observe them. Throughout the exhibition the trainer stood between the blackboard and the rack so that the horse would always be in front of him, and he could see what was taking place.

For the first experiment, the writer put on the blackboard the following figures

8 5 7 6
6 3 9 4
and said to the horse: "King, add these figures." The trainer then said: "King, do as the gentleman bids you. Go to the rack and show what is the sum of the first two figures. Go along and do it quickly." Then turning to the audience he remarked: "King is mischievous to-day, perhaps because it is so cool, and he may not do just as he should unless I compel him to. Usually I never have to take a switch to him, but sometimes when he is too mischievous, I have to correct him, and urge him to attend to his business." It was interesting to note the effect of this statement upon the observers. It put them at once into sympathy with the horse, and predisposed them to explain King's lack of responsiveness and his mistakes to his "mischief," and not to his inability to understand what was wanted of him. The remarks served effectively to divert many of the observers from studying the commands and actions of the trainer as possibly affording a clue to the reactions of the horse. They just naturally concluded that so much talk by the trainer was necessary in order to control the horse's "mischief," and it did not occur to them that verbal clues were mixed in with the commands.

Meanwhile the horse was standing at the rack without indicating any interest in the proceedings. He was not "studying" the figures on the board. He did not appear to understand what Dr. Boyd was saying about him. At least it was impossible for the writer, who was carefully noting King's reactions at short range, to detect any recognition on King's part of the trainer's remarks or commands, though it was claimed he understood every word. Turning to the horse again the trainer said, "King, why don't you do as the gentleman asked you? Find the first number. Come on, behave yourself, and find the first number," and he picked up a stick as if to slap him. The horse then walked over to the rack on which the number 10 had been placed near the lower end. He moved down to this number, and pushed it off. However, just as King came to the number 10, the trainer said, "Show the gentleman what the first number is." After having pushed off the right number, he pushed off the number 6 which was next to it. The trainer then said, "What is the number you carry? Find the number which you should carry." The horse moved along the rack, and while the trainer was talking to and commanding him, stamping occasionally to impress King with the necessity of "cutting out" his "mischief," he pushed off the number 1 and the number next to it. Then the trainer said, "What is the next number in this addition? Find it for the gentleman." The horse moved along the rack, and at the command, "Show the gentleman," he pushed off the number 13, and the one next to it. The trainer then had some one in the audience put the number 1 on the rack, though it could not be determined whether the horse was looking at the moment; and being commanded to show the number which should be carried, King moved up to the rack, and apparently went directly to the right number, and pushed it off.

So he went through with the entire addition, making no mistakes, except that for most of the numbers he pushed off both the right one and the one next to it. The trainer in each case would take two or three steps toward him and say, "He knows perfectly well what is right, but he is mischievous to-day. Sometimes he does that, but very rarely." Then the trainer would call out to the horse, "King, if you do not behave yourself, I will whip you for it. Now you go and do as I command you." The effect of these remarks on the observers was evident; they were siding with the horse in all his "pranks," though he appeared to be in earnest, according to equine standards. The writer could detect no evidence of "mischief" in the horse's expression or action. But the observers showed sympathy with King, and delight in his evident intelligence. The writer, who did not participate in the demonstrations of admiration when King pushed off the numbers, was said by certain of the observers to be rather cold and blase in regard to "educated" horses. One newspaper reporter who was in the audience told the writer later that he thought King would have done much better than he actually did do, if he (the writer) had not been eyeing him so coldly and unsympathetically. "I couldn't have done so well myself under such conditions," said the reporter.

The writer next wrote on the board the figures

7 5 9 2
5 1 3 8

and said to the horse, "King, subtract." The trainer then called to him to perform the process, using, so far as one could follow him, substantially such language as he did during the addition process. The horse in this experiment always pushed off the right number, but he also pushed off one or two other numbers in each instance. He would stop in the vicinity of the right number, while his trainer was talking to him, but apparently he could not discriminate between the correct one and those on either side of it. The trainer kept telling the audience that King knew perfectly well what was right, but he was "out of sorts to-day." So far as one could tell, the horse was utterly indifferent to his repeated verbal chastisements, even though, according to the trainer, he comprehended everything said to him and about him.

Next, the writer put on the board a problem in division, and one in multiplication, and the horse solved each problem in the way in which he did the first two; but in most of his attempts he pushed off more than one number, which the trainer uniformly ascribed to the cold weather, or to some similar cause, and not to lack of intelligence. His most remarkable arithmetical work, judging from the expressions of the audience, was his correct solution, in the same sense that his other solutions were correct, of the problem,—"If I must pay 35 cents for one dozen oranges, how much must I pay for 224 dozens?" King "solved" this "in his mind," which is more than the average high-school graduate can do. Also, he apparently carried the solutions of all the other problems "in his mind" after "studying" them once, which would be regarded as "some" feat for a mathematician even.

Stopping a moment for comments, it may be noted first that the trainer while commanding the horse saw the numbers on the rack, and that the horse passed along the rack, instead of walking up straight to a number. It was impossible to keep tab on all of the trainer's talk so as to determine whether he always used a given word or phrase when the horse was opposite a particular number; but some observers in the audience believed that this was true, and that the phrase he used was "Show the gentleman." It was thought by some members of the audience that the trainer always stamped his foot when the horse was to move back on the rack in order to find the right number. The writer, who remained at the blackboard while the horse was "studying" the figures, noted that he did not appear to concentrate upon them at all. The trainer would say to him as the numbers were being written, "Now, King, study these numbers, so that you can do your work quickly." The horse on at least two occasions nibbled at the writer's fingers while the numbers were being written. Once he looked out of the window; and from the focus of his eyes, which were specially observed, it appeared impossible for him to be attending to the numbers which had been written. If a child had been doing this work he would have shown in his bodily adjustments that he was concentrating upon the situation before him, but it was just the other way with King. The trainer would tell him to figure a problem all out before he went to the rack, so that he could do his work fast; and assuming that he did this, it indicated a higher degree of numerical imagery and retentiveness than the majority of human beings possess.

After the arithmetical tests, the writer introduced King to three of the observers situated in different parts of the room. Then five ribbons of different colors were put on the rack, after which the writer said to the horse,—"King, take the orange ribbon to Miss W." The trainer followed with, "King, do as the gentleman bids you. Find the orange color." The trainer was constantly talking to King, and stamping to make him obedient, and the horse soon picked out the orange ribbon and apparently went directly with it to Miss W., throwing it at her. The writer next said, "King, find the blue ribbon and take it to Mr. X." Again the trainer talked to the horse while he was performing the task, with the result that he found the blue ribbon, and took it to Mr. X. Miss W. threw her ribbon onto the floor, and the trainer said, "King, pick up the orange ribbon and take it to Dr. O." The horse picked up the ribbon, turned around, and did exactly as he was commanded; and in this case, neither the writer nor the observers could detect any cue word or signal which was used to guide the horse. It should be said that all the observers were much impressed with the directness with which the horse appeared to go to the individual whose name was mentioned in any of these tests, though when King was being introduced to a person he did not seem to pay any attention to him. A human being would look at any one to whom he was being introduced, so that in the future he could recognize him through having focalized some of his characteristics; but King's eyes never once focused on the person to whom he was being presented. During the ceremonies of introduction, King might be sniffing at the writer's hand, or nibbling at his coat, which would cause the trainer to exclaim,—" King, why don't you behave yourself? I will have to whip you." But still when the test came King seemed to most of the observers to have recognized each individual to whom he was introduced, and to have remembered his name.

Next the writer asked King to spell the word "horse." The trainer took him in hand, talking to him and stamping; and the horse went along the rack and, as with the figures, pushed off in order the letters h-o-r-s-e, pushing off also letters next to the correct ones in each case. Several other words were given him, all of which he "spelled" under the guidance of his trainer. Lastly the writer printed on the blackboard the words, "Take my gloves, and give them to Miss "W." The horse apparently searched around the body of the writer, but could not locate the gloves. The trainer gave the audience the impression that King was trying to find them; but while they could be seen extending out of the pocket, yet the horse did not take them. The effect created on the audience was that the horse was actually hunting for the gloves. It was noticed that as he was sniffing up and down the body, the trainer was repeating, "Do what the gentleman has asked you to do." It should be noted further that the writer stood directly before the horse, and it would be a simple matter for him to associate such a word as "gentleman" with taking something from his person. It is a frequent test for exhibitors with horses to have them take something, usually the hat from a man's head, and give it to some one in the audience.

These experiments having been concluded, the trainer and his assistants were asked to leave the building, and the horse was turned over to the writer. Before leaving, the trainer said, "The horse is very mischievous to-day, and you will have to look out for him." This had the desired effect, or at least it caused many of the observers to seek places of safety, which put them in a non-critical attitude toward the experiment. In this connection it should be mentioned that the trainer gave the writer before he took charge of King, and apparently in an incidental manner, a newspaper article which ran as follows:

"King Pharaoh," an "educated horse" who made his initial bow at Wonderland Park yesterday, vindicated his honor at the close of one of the performances of the day. There was a "doubting Thomas" in the audience who thought the horse must have been given signals of some sort to perform the mathematical and other wonders which were revealed during the performance.

The man of inquiring and suspicious nature was told by Dr. J. M. Boyd, the owner and trainer of the horse, that after the audience had left he could remain and see for himself in the absence of the horse's trainer. The "doubting Thomas" was left alone with "King Pharaoh." Shortly the man made his exit with much expedition, with the horse a close second. The animal, the man said, had obeyed several commands but seemed to become offended and "went" for him, as if knowing he was confronted by a doubter.

It seemed apparent that the object of this was to impress the writer with the desirability of his not being skeptical about King Pharaoh's abilities, or the horse might attack him and do him harm.

After the trainer and his assistants had left the hall, the writer repeated every one of the experiments which had been performed by King when his trainer was present. It may be stated in brief that he failed to perform a single test satisfactorily. When told to go to the blackboard, without any gesture or sign other than the mere words of the command, he did not respond. He could not react even to the word "blackboard." But when urged with the uplifted hand in the act of striking, and guided in the right direction, he would go and "study" the numbers. But when invited to go to the rack and perform the solution, he seemingly had no idea of what was said to him. But when urged and threatened, he would pass along the rack without knocking off any number. It was impossible to get him to remove a number by telling him simply to find the correct one. It was the same in regard to the spelling. In some cases when he was commanded in a threatening voice and manner to find numbers, he would paw, indicating that he seemed to think the command was to count. The only reaction that could be got from him was to stand before the blackboard, walk along the rack when urged and threatened with a stick, but without any disposition to solve problems, and paw when a command such as "Go and find Miss W." was continually repeated in an increasingly austere voice. It was evident that the horse had no imagery whatever for the words "Miss W.," and no notion of what was wanted of him.

The trainer, who after a considerable period had come to the building to find out the progress of events, and who stood on the sidelines while the writer was trying the horse out on some of his feats, finally could not endure it any longer, and came into the ring, saying to the audience, "Once in a while King will come across a man for whom he will do nothing; but he will readily do it for most people." This remark had the desired effect. Some persons in the audience were led to think that the writer was not in sympathetic accord with the horse, and so could not induce him to perform his usual tasks. At once the writer called upon Professor Cooley, an expert on horses, who was in the audience, and who had seen the performance from the start, to take charge of the horse, which he did, with exactly the same result as the writer had. Next the principal of the high school in Miles City, who could not be accused of any skepticism regarding the horse's ability, or any want of sympathy for him, was asked to put King through his paces, but he could not get a single intelligent reaction from him. It ought to be added that the writer was simply neutral in his attitude toward the horse throughout the trainer's performances; he did not praise or censure; he simply took notes on each event, which impressed both the trainer and some of the observers as denoting a too critical and unsentimental relation.

It was to be expected that the trainer of King would explain his disappointing behavior as due to the paralyzing influence of strange personalities, and indisposition of some sort, for he had "never acted that way before." So another experiment was determined upon, and it was agreed that Dr. Boyd should handle the horse himself next time, and the writer would simply tell him what tests should be made. Now, it was mentioned above that in the language and arithmetic tests, the trainer as well as the audience saw the letters and figures, which made it impossible to eliminate the trainer's influence in guiding his horse, even though he might be unconscious of it. In order to try out this point it was decided, and it was thought without the trainer's knowledge, to prepare new blocks with letters and figures only on one side, and to arrange them on the rack so that the trainer could not see them while directing King, but so that the horse and the observers could see them. It was also decided to blindfold the trainer while the horse was being tested on his ability to discriminate colors, and to select special ones to give to persons to whom he had been introduced. Strangely enough, just before the tests were to be made the trainer declared that King had suddenly been taken sick, and could not be tested, though "nothing like it had ever happened to him before." To clear up the sitution, which looked very bad, Dr. Boyd promised to bring King to Madison, Wisconsin, for further experiments before January 15, 1912; but from that day to this (October 1, 1912) it has been impossible to get any response from him, though King is still amazing people with his "human intelligence."

Any one familiar with horses knows that they are capable of keen responses of a particular kind. They can very acutely distinguish tones of voice in respect to their denoting gentleness, or harshness, or weakness, or sternness in their possessors. Dogs have the same sort of keenness. Very young children, before they understand a single word as a symbol of meaning, can discriminate a number of shades in vocal quality. A horse can learn the significance of certain words which denote pimple, definite reactions, as "gee," "haw," "get up," "whoa," and the like. He can be taught to respond in special cases to a considerable range of visual and auditory signs or cues, as may be observed in any circus. He can discriminate strangers from his caretakers, alike by smell and by sight, and also by the "feel" of the rein in driving him. The dominant emotion of the horse is fear, and he is keen in noting the characteristics of persons or places or objects which have been associated in his experience with pain or terror. He is extremely cautious, which keeps him ever on the alert, with the result that he will respond to simple stimuli in the form of "lessons" much more readily than the cow or the sheep, for instance. King is undoubtedly an average horse in this respect. As a result of repeated "lessons," he has associated a few visual and auditory signs with definite responses, and he has probably connected particular reactions with specific words, as "gentleman," or "show the gentleman" which is, of course, but one word to him, denoting a specific reaction, just as "whoa" does. Unquestionably much of his performance depends upon the peculiar vocal and bodily mannerisms of his trainer. When these are removed, King is at sea, hopelessly befogged when he is requested to do anything.

Those who exploit the intelligence of the horse, and other animals as well, usually try to show that they possess the traits of the human mind, in that they can understand sentences in ordinary speech, can read and spell and calculate numerically, can learn the names of people and discriminate their character, can interpret facial expression, and so on. Now, all these acts and processes demand a synthesis of particular experiences which it is safe to say the equine brain is incapable of under any kind or degree of education. If a horse could do these things, it would cease to be a horse. The reason a horse is a horse psychically is because it is limited to certain types of intellectual synthesis and affective reaction, all of which have been determined by its ancestral history. It would be just as sensible to say that a man could be educated to follow the trail of a fox from the scent of its track, as to say that a horse, or any other animal, can be trained to read or calculate sums or discern a skeptic in an audience. This is not reflecting in any way upon the intelligence of the horse; it is simply discriminating between the characteristic types of equine and of human intelligence. But if it were not financially profitable for some persons to possess horses with "human intelligence," we probably should never be called upon to wonder about them.