June 2015 - Horsey Humor
Written by Bob Goddard
Friday, 05 June 2015 03:30

A Big, Scary Word

by Bob Goddard

Let’s not be afraid of anthropomorphism. Yes, it’s a big, scary, sci-fi kind of word and it’s impossible to pronounce gracefully the first time you try, but the meaning is easy to grasp. It’s simply the practice of assigning human attributes to animals. And things, if you want to take it that far.

For our purposes, the term refers to our unfortunate habit of attributing human motivations to equine behavior. Trainers warn us of the pitfalls of this habit, which include things like getting absolutely nowhere in the horse’s training and getting kicked in the leg for “no reason.” It would be better for us to consider how a horse thinks and what actually motivates him - whether we like it or not - and then go on from there.

Sensei agrees. “The moment we assign human motivations to a horse’s behavior is the moment we stop understanding them. Did I ever tell you the story of Clever Hans?”

“Clever Hands? An old boyfriend, perhaps?”

“No, Clever Hans. In German, Der Kluge Hans.”

I search my memory banks, pushing aside the hitting stats from the Tigers ‘84 season and the opening song from Laverne & Shirley. “No, I don’t recall you ever mentioning him. Sounds like a shady kind of guy.”

“He wasn’t a guy, he was a horse. He was owned by a math teacher and part-time trainer by the name of Wilhelm von Osten. Von Osten taught Hans how to count.”

“Count what?” I had no doubt that what she was saying was true. But why would a horse need to count anything?

“Just count: one, two, three, four…”

“You mean eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sech, sieben. Did he get to sieben?”

“To sieben and even higher. He could do many things.”

“I don’t doubt it. Once you have a horse that can count, it opens up all kinds of doors.”

“Yes, he could add, subtract, multiply and divide.”

“Wow. “ I was beginning to appreciate the internal logic of her story.

“He worked with fractions. He could tell time and keep track on a calendar. And he could read and spell in German.”

“Fractions are hard. How was he able to demonstrate all of this? I’m thinking you would need fingers for some of it.”

“That was the easy part. He just responded to questions from his trainer by tapping his hoof. For example, on a Tuesday the trainer would ask him how many days was it until Friday and Hans would tap his hoof on the ground three times.”

“His trainer asked the questions?” I was beginning to smell a rat.

“I know what you’re thinking. But von Osten was no fraud. Hans was thoroughly tested by independent investigators.”

“They tested him? They shoulda hired him.”

“They found that Hans could still perform at a high level even without von Osten anywhere around. So, why do you think Hans was able to do all these things?”

“The fabulous German education system?”

“No, not that. The investigation revealed a crucial detail about Hans’ abilities: he could only answer questions correctly if the tester - any tester - already knew the answer.”

“Hans was telepathic?”

“Almost. He was simply responding to inadvertent cues his testers where giving him. By sensing subtle changes in their body language, he knew when to stop tapping.”

“So Clever Hans wasn’t so clever after all.”

“No, Hans was extremely intelligent, but by the standards of his species, not ours. He was very adept at reading his environment and he was particularly sensitive when it came to reading humans. You have to think of the horse’s entire body as one big sensory input machine. They pick up on things that we may not be aware of.

Ah. The horse hears the whispers of our bodies.

“And what does all this tell you about anthropomorphism?”

“That you can’t count on it?”

“Exactly. It reinforces misconceptions that hinder our understanding of why horses act the way they do.”

“It’s a pretty simple idea really.”

“That’s right. It’s easy as one, two, three.”


Freelance writer Bob Goddard lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife, Jenny, and assorted pets. His book is Horse Crazy! A Tongue-in-Cheek Guide for Parents of Horse-Addicted Girls. To order, and to read his humorous blog, “Bob the Equestrian,” visit www.horsecrazy.net.