Oakland’s Horse Whisperer

A school of horses? I never heard of such a thing!
Turned loose upon the stage? It is extraordinary!
Without bridle or rein, obeying every command with the precision of soldiers? Come now, this is too much. I don’t believe it!
(The Equine Paradox!: Can you solve it? George Bartholomew, 1880)

And yet it was true. This spectacle debuted July 4, 1879 to an audience of over 10,000. The venue was George Bartholomew’s East 14th Avenue garden. Professor Bartholomew, as he billed himself, was a horse trainer who had travelled west from New York in search of gold and wild horses.

Bartholomew believed horses were highly intelligent and could be taught as children were taught, with affection and patience:

“My motto in educating them is, ‘Make haste slowly;’ I never require too much, and I never ask a horse to do what he can’t do. … A horse can’t learn what horses are not capable of learning; and he can’t do a thing until he understands what you mean, and how you want it done. I get him used to the word, and show him what I want. …My horses are not influenced by signs or motions when they are on the stage. They use their intelligence and memory, and they associate ideas… They learn a great deal by observing one another. One watches and learns by seeing the others…They are social creatures; they love each other’s company (ibid.).”

At the time of their 1879 debut Bartholomew’s horses understood over three hundred different commands, comprising a vocabulary of over fourteen hundred words.

Beginning in the 1880’s Bartholomew’s Equine Paradox traveled the country in three special train cars. One car carried the performers, another served as a family car, and the third was for staff. The horses performed plays in which they portrayed the major characters. Captioned “The Horse Past, Present, and Future,” the performers recreated various scenes and eras of history, from the sands of ancient Egypt to the horse-and-buggies of the nineteenth century. Most striking were the depictions of horses performing various human tasks, such as reading and using the telephone. George Eggleston described one performance in his 1904 book Little Lads.

“When the curtain rose there was … a small stage carpeted ankle deep with saw-dust, … Professor Bartholomew’s horses came in one after another, pretending, if that is not too strong a word, that they were on the way to school, … and waited the arrival of their teacher, the Professor, who entered with a schoolmaster air, and gave the order. “Bucephalus, take my hat, and bring me a chair!” as you might tell James or John to do the same, and with more promptness than they would have shown, Bucephalus came forward, took the hat between his teeth, carried it across the stage and placed it on a desk, and brought a chair.”

In addition to his mansion in Oakland, Bartholomew had homes in Philadelphia and Independence, Missouri making his travels less unsettling. He also had a summer training facility in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1906 Professor Bartholomew retired to his home in Independence.

This article was written by Vicki Jacobs, Camron-Stanford House docent and board member.

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