Read Before Riding: Horses Have Consciousness

The title “Horses Have Consciousness“, given to the National Geographic article quoted below, is condescending in the strongest possible terms to me. Well. Yes they do. Why are they ringing a bell about this? Sigh.

It seems that it really isn’t that long ago that such a statement — that animals have consciousness — sounded outrageous and was widely dismissed.

For this article, Simon Worrall interviews Wendy Williams, author of The Horse: The Epic History Of Our Noble Companion. Now I like that title.

I particularly like this bit — the part about Clever Hans.


Q: Tell us about how the horse, Clever Hans, was actually cleverer than humans thought – and what he teaches us about horse intelligence?

A: Clever Hans was a horse [who] worked closely with his owner, and the owner believed that Hans could actually do math, and do it very well! [Laughs] This was about 100 years ago. His owner would ask Clever Hans to do addition or subtraction tables and Hans would always come up with the right answer. He became very famous but many people were skeptical, so there were a lot of tests.

At first Hans succeeded in all the tests and showed that he could indeed do mathematical computations. What happened is that Hans would stand there with the person doing the questioning. When it was the trainer, Hans was always right. Then they put other people up against Hans and said, “Ask Hans to do a calculation.” Hans would do an addition or subtraction problem and still get it right. Then someone had the idea of putting the person asking the question behind a barrier, so that Hans couldn’t see the person. As soon as that happened, Hans could no longer do the math.

It turns out Hans was watching the human beings and the subtle clues that told Hans when he had actually gotten to the right number. For example, if the problem was 10 minus 5, and the answer was 5, Hans would tap his foot one, two, three, four, five times. But it turns out the person doing the questioning was giving an unconscious clue to let Hans know he had gotten to the right number. Maybe the person would lean forward a little or look more excited. So Hans was reading the clues that people were giving off in this very subtle way, and giving the right answer.

Eventually, people said Hans was not a very smart horse because he really couldn’t do addition and subtraction. But the new thinking about Hans is that it showed how incredibly smart he was, that he could read clues in the human psyche so much more clearly than we can read clues in horse language.


This turned out to quite an enjoyable article.

I wish that humans, instead of choosing to see animals as a lower life form in order to raise themselves up, would choose to see their spiritual qualities and elevate us all.


Read it all here.

Clever Hans, National Geographic

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