3 Horses That Changed History
Is anyone truly great without a great horse by their side? Today we look at some of the most famous horses in history – and the humans who loved them.
Alexander the Great, the great king and conqueror of antiquity, was a skilled horseman. But his horse, Bucephalus, is almost as legendary as the king himself.
According to the writings of Plutarch, an ancient historian, a thirteen-year-old Alexander tamed the horse when no one else could by turning the animal away from its shadow. The wild horse quickly grew in fame. Some writings told of its descent from Greek gods, while others claimed that whoever rode the horse was destined to rule the world. Alexander supposedly claimed that the horse was immortal. As years passed, the horse’s legend grew along with the king’s. Some legends claim that the horse was born at the same time as the king, and others that they died simultaneously. The historical Alexander the Great outlived his horse and named an ancient city, Bucephala, in his honor.
The Roman emperor Caligula is best known today for his decadent, brutal – and scandalous – lifestyle. But did you know that one of his most trusted advisors was a horse?
According to Suetonius, an ancient historian, Caligula’s horse Incitatus had a stable made of marble and a stall made of ivory. He wore only purple blankets, the color of royalty, and had jewels hanging from around his neck. The horse had its own servants and its oats were mixed with gold flakes – he even had his own house! The emperor would issue invitations on the horse’s behalf inviting dignitaries to dinners attended by the horse’s servants and would host lavish birthday parties in the horse’s honor. Rumor has it that the emperor planned on making the horse an official member of the Roman government. According to the historian Aloys Winterling, the emperor lavished his attention on the horse to draw attention to how easy it was to work in government and entertain dignitaries – so easy, even a horse could do it.
After Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, the public grew increasingly interested in animal intelligence. Wilhelm Von Osten, a math teacher and mystic, claimed to have taught his horse Hans to solve math problems, tell time and dates, understand music theory, and speak German. The horse travelled around Germany amusing and delighting audiences with his talents.
Audience members would either ask the horse a question out loud or let it read the question on a slip of paper. Hans answered by tapping his hoof. In 1904, a panel of 13 people, mostly schoolteachers, headed by psychologist Carl Stump, determined that there was no illusion – the answers given by the horse were really correct, and they changed each time the question was asked. But psychologist Oskar Pfungst was not convinced. He separated the horse from its massive audiences – still the answer was correct. He made other people ask the horse questions – still the answer was correct. Finally, he tried asking the horse a question to which he didn’t know the answer. The horse answered incorrectly.
Pfungst found that, even though Clever Hans couldn’t read German or solve math problems, the horse was, in fact, very clever. The horse would watch the person asking the questions – the people who already knew the answers – and read their body language. When their body language changed when the horse arrived at the correct answer, Clever Hans would stop. Since then, similar behavior in humans has been known as the Clever Hans Effect.
To learn about our favorite fictional horses, check out Our 5 Favorite Books About Horses.