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Famous Animals: Clever Hans - a Horse That Does Math!

Hans was a horse that became famous for his mental calculation skills!

Imagine a horse sitting next to you in math class. It stamps its hoof or shakes its head to answer - and gets 9 out of 10 right! This famous animal is a horse called Hans that belonged to Berlin math teacher Wilhelm von Osten between 1895 and 1916.

Can Horses Solve Math Problems?

We don’t know if Wilhelm von Osten actually took his clever Hans into lessons with him. But he only took two years to teach him all basic calculations! Or did he?

Clever Hans Clever Hans - Photo: Karl Krall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Clever Hans Mastered All Basic Arithmetic Operations

At first, people thought that the teacher used some kind of trick, but Hans even gave the right answer to strangers. How could it be? Scientists were simply baffled that a horse could be so incredibly intelligent. A sensation!

Scientists Tested the Abilities of Clever Hans

To find out what was going on, a 13-person team was founded in 1904 under the guidance of philosophy professor Carl Stumpf. They were in the dark for quite a while until Stumpf’s assistant Oskar Pfungst finally got a break. Hans couldn’t count, but he could see very well. Hans watched the person asking the questions very closely. The closer he got to the answer, the more excited the people around him became. They were relieved when he got to the right answer. And this was the signal for Hans: “stop stamping your hoof now!”. Cold... warm... warmer!

Clever Hans Was Observing People's Behavior

When the person asking the question didn’t know the answer, or when Hans wasn’t surrounded by people, he couldn’t answer the question. So that was the secret behind the cleverest horse in the world. Even though he couldn’t really count, it’s amazing how the horse recognized and reacted to the feelings, gestures (hand movements) and facial expressions of the people around him.


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