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The Story Of


 The Horse With The Human Brain


George Wharton James


First published in 1917









The Friend of All Living Things.


Early in the year 1915 I was called to lecture on California and the West in the beautiful Sunset Theater of the Southern Pacific Building at the San Francisco Exposition. In taking a survey of the Zone I was soon attracted to a gigantic horse in process of manufacture out of wood and plaster, and a placard before it indicated that a trained horse would soon be shown here. Being fond of animals, naturally, and having seen and read considerably of trained horses, I was ready for the first opening of this show, and there was introduced to CAPTAIN, the educated horse, or, as he has been termed, “the horse with the human brain.” My opinions as to the quality of Captain’s intelligence I have recorded later, but his first performance was a delight to me. His appearance was pleasing. He looked well cared for, contented, happy and willing to go through his exhibition. There was none of the holding back, the whipping, the sharp orders, the ugly looks one so generally sees on the faces of “trained animals” when they are being put through their tricks. Most of these poor creatures show so manifestly that they are trapped, are made to do what they do not like, and that they resent it, that I seldom can tolerate the sight of their anger and humiliation - for that is clearly what nearly every animal reveals to me at these exhibitions. Here, on the other hand, was an animal that enjoyed his work. He treated it as fun; just as my own Arab colt treats a free run and then being led into his corral and being petted. After a little pleasantry his master asked him to count the number of ladies on the front row. Captain’s eyes at once began at one end, followed the row, down to the other end, and, by pawing, he told the number. Several similar questions were asked, as, for instance, how many gentlemen in the second row; how many women along the aisle; how many girls, or boys, in the second or third rows, etc., and in every case Captain gave the answer correctly.

Then a standard was brought forward containing numbers, to which were attached leather lugs or holders. These were held in the standard, or rack, and placed without any relative order, and scores of later observations have convinced me that there is no order in which they can be placed that makes any difference to Captain. Here he showed his familiarity with numbers, bringing from the rack anyone called for. Then tests in arithmetic were applied, such as the addition of numbers as 9 plus 6 plus 7. Captain at once picked out the figure 2 and then after dropping it, picked it up and showed it again. Subtraction was equally well performed, and multiplication up to 12 times 12, and the answers given were invariably correct.

In giving the answers he pawed with one of his front feet, but at the request of his master would give a portion of the answer with one foot, and the remainder with another, even alternating in his use of his hind feet.

A number of simple commands were now given and ques­tions asked to which the horse responded with a shake of the head for No, or a nod for Yes. He would take a seat when requested, scratch his head with right or left hind foot, show either right or left foot when required, or stamp with right or left foot when required, or stamp with right or left hind foot as asked. When told to pump water he would swing his head up and down continuously, and he would swing his head to right and left as commanded. When asked to laugh he opened his mouth and showed his teeth, and he wiggled his ears with equal readiness. When told to put out his tongue it came out immediately, and when commanded to make a hobby-horse of himself he planted his hind feet firmly and then proceeded to stretch himself by planting his forefeet as far ahead as he could.

He was then required to make a corkscrew of himself, and, placing all four feet together, moved around in corkscrew motion. At the command: “Reverse!” he immediately went in the opposite direction.

Then came an exhibition of Captain’s recognition of colors. A rack containing ten or fifteen colored cloths was placed before the audience. The horse was asked to go and pick out, say, the third lady in the second row, look at the color of her hat (or shawl, dress, gloves or other article of apparel), and then take up the cloth from the rack which corresponded to the color of the article worn. In this he seldom made mistakes.

Now a blindfold exhibition was given. As his master explained, this fully precluded the possibility of any collusion – at least as far as Captain’s seeing any signal was concerned. The blindfold was a leather mask, held in place by the ears and a supporting and fastening strap, the leather completely cover­ing the eyes. All the various commands of “Pump,” “Wiggle your ears,” “Laugh,” “Put our your tongue,” “Corkscrew,” “Say Yes!” “No!” were given and immediately and correctly responded to. Then Captain was asked to bite his right knee, lift up his left foot, scratch his head with his rear left, or right foot, etc.

Numbers were now called for, addition, subtraction and multiplication required, and the answers beaten out, or pawed, with whatever foot was suggested.

Then his memory was tested. A red cloth was tied to his right foreknee, and a white one on his left hind leg. As the tying was done his master carefully cautioned him not to for­get. Now for a few minutes, he was kept occupied with num­bers, and then was asked for the white cloth, afterwards for the red one. In both cases he gave whichever was called for. But it should be noted that in neither case did Mr. Sigsbee give him the command. Someone in the audience was asked to call for whichever colored cloth he desired, and on several occasions I made the request myself. The blindfold was now removed.

The exhibition with the Cash Register then followed, Cap­tain being asked to get a paper dollar, then change it for small silver, when he brought out half a dollar and two quarters. There were many variations of the use of money to all of which requests he responded with accuracy.

Then he was called to the chimes and the audience was in­formed that Captain could play “Nearer, My God to Thee,” or “The Swanee River,” and it could make its choice. The former tune was called for and Captain played it correctly, as far as the notes were concerned, though the time was not, indeed could not have been, followed, as the clapper was moved by an upward thrust of the horse’s nose upon a lever.

These, in the main, were his achievements. They delighted, yet, at the same time, puzzled me. How did he accomplish them? By the kindness of his owner, Mr. W. A. Sigsbee, I was permitted to visit Captain in his stall as often as I chose. As I got to know him better my interest increased, until I decided that I should like to write his story. After talking the matter over with Mr. Sigsbee, he was quite willing, but, somehow, my year in San Francisco was so crowded that the great Exposition closed without this pleasing task being accomplished.

The following year we met again, however, at the Panama-California International Exposition, in San Diego, and there I seized the time necessary to write the following story.

While I cannot say with Homer Davenport that I have been so profoundly interested in horses that at three years and nine months old I drew illustrations of Arab horses, I can say with truth that I have always been interested in any animal that showed any approach to what is generally regarded as human intelligence. I was born and brought up as a good Methodist. God to me, was the Creator of all things, and however my belief in other matters of religion may have been modified or altered, in that particular I believe as I have ever believed. If, then, God is the Creator of all things, animate and inani­mate, every creature high or low, is a manifestation of His thought, His care, His love, and all are born – created – of the same Spirit, and therefore, are akin. To me this is a truth more powerful than mere logic can ever make it. There is a Spirit within me of the Creator, undoubtedly that bears witness to this truth. Hence I know no difference between the spirit in the horse and that in the man, except in the degree of its outward manifestation. However, my good friend, John Burroughs, writes:

We know that the animals do not think in any proper sense as we do, or have concepts and ideas, because they have no language. Think­ing in any proper sense is impossible without language; the language is the concept. Our ideas are as inseparable from the words as form is from substance. We may have impressions, perceptions, emotions, without language, but not ideas. The child perceives things, discrimi­nates things, knows its mother from a stranger, is angry, or glad, or afraid, long before it has any language or any proper concepts. Ani­mals know only things through their senses, and this “Knowledge is restricted to things present in time and space.” Reflection, or a return upon themselves in thought, of this they are not capable. Their only language consists of various cries and calls, expressions of pain, alarm, joy, love, anger. They communicate with each other and come to share each other’s mental or emotional states, through these cries and calls. A dog barks in various tones also, each of which expresses a different feeling in the dog .... The lowing and bellowing of horned cattle are expressions of several different things. The crow has many caws, that no doubt convey various meanings. The cries of alarm and dis­tress of the birds are understood by all the wild creatures that hear them; a feeling of alarm is conveyed to them an emotion, not an idea. We evolve ideas from our emotions, and emotions are often begotten by our ideas. A fine spring morning or a prospect from a mountain top makes one glad, and this gladness may take an intellectual form. But without language this gladness could not take form in ideal con­cepts .... We have only to think of the animals as habitually in a condition analogous to or identical with the unthinking and involun­tary character of much of our lives. They are creatures of routine. They are wholly immersed in the unconscious, involuntary nature out of which we rise, and above which our higher lives go on. [“Do Animals Think,” Harper’s Monthly, Vol. 110, p. 358.]

This logic seems complete and unassailable. Yet, neverthe­less, there is within me something that is not satisfied. I grant Burroughs the argument, and then fall back upon my own inner consciousness with reasoning somewhat after this line: We do not now know the language of the animals; we do not know whether they have one or not. Their lives seem im­prisoned within the dark pent-house of brute-life where no gleam of our kind of intellectual light reaches them. But may it not be that they feel this imprisonment and are striving to escape from it. The Indians have many legends that speak of a time when gods, men, animals and all nature had a com­mon tongue. May this not be true, or if not true of the past, a vision of the natural outgrowth of the future? If God be the Creator He must comprehend all His creation. As we approximate nearer to Him and Browning asserts we are all gods, though in the germ may we not begin to understand more fully the languageless animals?

Our acceptance of the Hebraic Law as set forth in the Old Testament has made us look upon the animals as created solely for our benefit, ours to use just as we choose. Unfortunately this power to use has given to those with small modicum of kindness in their disposition the feeling that they are also within their manly rights to misuse the animals. Considering the greatness of the Universe and the finiteness of man as compared with the whole, does not this idea seem preposterous?

The Buddhist and Hindu religions teach that all life is One – that on its journey from unconsciousness to self-consciousness it passes through all the kingdoms of nature, mineral, vege­table, molluscar, reptilian, bird, animal, human, up to super­human. They say about this life that “it sleeps in the mineral, dreams in the flowers, awakens in the animal, and becomes active in the human.” Hence the Hindu treats the animals as his younger brothers, and the slaughter and abuse of them tolerated and practiced in the West is practically unknown in the East, except where the so-called Western civilization has intruded. This view, too, would transcend the arguments and logic of Burroughs.

Then, too, may it not be our privilege to help the animals escape from their dark prison cell into the light of mental exercise? I see no reason why animals should not evolve, ascend in the scale, and develop language, reason, concepts, ideas, as well as man. It is certainly going to do no harm to believe it possible, to hope for it, and to work for it. Love is a great revelator in many ways, and the love of man, intelligently exer­cised in relationship to animals, may be of wonderful help in opening the door of their brute prison-houses.

Hence, I hail every effort, whether of child with its pet, shepherd with his dog, woman with her parrot, or educated scholar with his horses, to find the way that shall help the animal know his kinship with the human. Too long have we assumed that there was no crossing the gulf between the animal and the human. Man’s assumptions have shut knowledge away from him. Instead of “assuming” that the horse had no intelligence why did he not go to work scientifically to find out what he did have? Just as Sir John Lubbock experimented with all kinds of creatures as to their powers of taste, smell, touch, etc., only in a larger and higher way, man might have tested the intelligence of horses, and then sought to improve it.

There is too much assumption in human beings about most things, animal instinct and human reason not excluded. What I wish to protest against, with emphasis and vigor, is the assumption that we know all there is to know about intelli­gence that we know the limits Nature herself has placed upon its development, and that all efforts to foster further development are useless. I affirm that we do not know; that we have never, as yet, even tried to know; and that until men with loving, devoted, sympathetic singleness of heart and purpose seek to develop all there is in the mentality of all the lower animals, dogs, cats, deer, as well as horses, shall we begin to have a real foundation for our assumptions upon the subject.

I am still simple enough to believe implicitly in the Spiritual Controller of the Universe we call God. I am still enamoured of the belief that as Browning says in “Saul”

God made all the creatures and gave them our love and our fear,

To give sign, we and they are His children, one family here.

Romanes claims for the horse an intelligence less than that of the larger carnivora, the elephant, or even the ass. Yet he asserts that the emotional life of the horse is remarkable, and that working through the emotions wonderful results of train­ing have been secured. He says it is an affectionate animal, pleased at being petted, jealous. of companions receiving favor, greatly enjoying play with others of its kind, and thoroughly entering into the sport of the hunting-field. Horses also ex­hibit pride in a marked degree, as also do mules, being unmis­takably pleased with gay trappings.

Now is it inconceivable that these animals might some day, somehow, find a door open whereby they could enter into the realm of speech. To feel is certainly a large step towards expression, and to my mind, the possession of the one power suggests the close proximity of the other.

I read with great interest the arguments as different from the mere assumptions of those who assert that the instinct of animals, and the reason of human beings, are two separate and distinct things; there is a deep gulf between them which can never be passed by the lower order. I do not believe this. Rather do I hold with Romanes that: No distinct line can be drawn between instinct and reason. Whether we look to the growing child or to the ascending scale of animal life, we find that instinct shades into reason by imperceptible degrees.

Instinct certainly involves some kind of mental operations, and by this feature it is clearly distinguished and differen­tiated from reflex action. One bold difference between instinct and reason, I contend, is that the actions of instinct are uni­form, though performed by different individuals of the same species, while reason however limited in its operations leads to the performance of individualistic actions, limited to single personalities. Instinct implies “mental action directed towards the accomplishment of adaptive movement, antecedent to indi­vidual experience, without necessary knowledge of the relation between the means employed and the ends attained, but simi­larly performed under the same appropriate circumstances by all the individuals of the same species.” [Romanes, pp. 5, 16]

In all these particulars instinct differs from reason, in that it, “besides involving a mental constituent, and besides being concerned in adaptive action, is always subsequent to individual experience, never acts but upon a definite and often laboriously acquired knowledge of the relation between means and ends, and is very far from being always similarly performed under the same appropriate circumstances by all the individuals of the same species." [Romanes, p. 16]

Where there is an intentional adaptation of means to ends there is clear indication of reason. This adaptation I claim Captain possesses, as distinctively, though of course on a much lower plane than I myself possess it. For instance: When Captain, of his own volition, after finding his groom asleep after being awakened, went to him again and pulled the covers from his bed, that may have been accident the first time. It led to the groom’s awakening, arising and feeding the horse. Now was it not conscious adaptation of means to that end when, the next morning, on the groom failing to arise and feed him, Captain deliberately went and pulled the bed clothes from him, and has done it ever since?

Romanes, in his Animal Intelligence, clearly suggests the processes by which we may study or investigate the operations of animal intelligence. Says he;

If we contemplate our own mind, we have an immediate cognizance of a certain flow of thoughts or feelings, which are the most ultimate things, and indeed the only things, of which we are cognizant .... But in our objective analysis of other or foreign minds we have no such immediate cognizance; all our knowledge of their operations is derived, as it were, through the medium of ambassadors – these ambassadors being the activities of the organism.  Starting from what I know subjectively of the operation of my own individual mind, and the activities which in my own organs. they prompt, I proceed by analogy to infer from the observable activities of other organisms what are the mental operations that underlie them.  ["Animal Intelligence, by J. G. Romanes, p. 1.  D. Appleton & Co., 1888.]

Upon any hypothesis of the development of human or ani­mal intelligence it is evident that mentality is of a wonderfully varied quality. There is a distinct, though by no means clearly defined, sliding scale of intelligence. It is universal knowledge that a dog shows more intelligence than a frog, and a horse  than a turtle; and human intelligences are as widely separated as the Igorrote and a Hottentot and a Gladstone or a Tagore. Where the horse’s place is, in the sliding scale of general intelligence, I do not know; nor can I tell exactly where Cap­tain should be located in the varying scale of the intelligence of horses in general. But this I do know. He has intelligence, and it is much superior to that commonly shown by the ma­jority of horses. And I firmly believe with Captain Sigsbee that training and discipline have their effect in bringing up the intelligence of the higher order of horses to the intelligence of the lower class, or child, level of humans.

I am decidedly opposed to the assumption that the intelli­gence of horses is a fixed and immovable mental quantity; that no amount of kindly, sympathetic, and understanding training by thoughtful men, will add to, or develop what they already possess. I believe, beyond the power of any logical formula to shake my belief, that any constant contact of the soul of man with whatever there is in horses that corresponds to the soul must produce a resulting awakening, quickening, deepen­ing of that soul-something in both man and animal.

It is in this light, therefore, that what I write of Captain’s “human intelligence” must be understood. He is developing. He has awakened, so far. He has begun the upward journey. The more he is “educated” the nearer the true resemblance to human intelligence will he display.

If, in any way, these pages help forward the day of closer sympathy between man and his lesser or younger brothers and sisters, I shall be amply repaid for the labor of writing them.


The Exposition, San Diego, Christmas, 1916.


Captain's own Story

How I bought and trained Captain

A Scientific Investigation

Captain's Prayer of Thanksgiving

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