Of all the famous horses, Lady Wonder was among the most unique. She was believed to be psychic.
In 1924, Lady Wonder was purchased in Richmond, Virginia, by Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda, a woman who already had a roster of Shetland ponies and would teach easy tricks to them. Lady Wonder was purchased as a young two-week old foal, much earlier than the normal age of three-to-five months that it takes to wean a horse. Fonda brought Lady Wonder up as if she was a human child, bottle feeding her and playing games with her. The horse loved games and would play "hide the thimble" with local children. It became apparent that nothing could be hidden from Lady. She knew where the thimble was each time. From that moment on, Mrs. Fonda was certain that her horse was special.
When Lady Wonder was two years old, her owners began to notice that if they thought about her, she would come galloping towards them even though her name wasn't called aloud. She learned how to count and spell with wooden blocks by the simple gesture of nudging them with her nose. The Fonda's took this intelligence to a new level by building a specialized typewriter for Lady Wonder, which worked by flipping up letters that would face the audience. One day during a performance, Lady Wonder spelled out the word "engine." Moments later a large tractor drove past them. Was it a coincidence, or was Lady Wonder psychic?
In any case, news spread of the horse's talent and she quickly became a celebrity. Mrs. Fonda warmly invited people to ask questions to her psychic horse at a fee of 50 cents per question.
In 1928, Lady Wonder was studied by three of the most respected parapsychologists of the time, J.B. Rhine, his wife Louisa, and William McDougall from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. They conducted hundreds of experiments on the horse using familiar symbols to the mare such as numbers and letters. Lady Wonder would tap on the keyboard to answer each of the scientists' questions. Her owners were not in attendance as they suspected that there could have offered the horse conscious or unconscious signalling, subtle visual cues or sounds that would have clued Lady into how to perform. Dr. Rhine asked Lady where he had dinner. To his surprise, she answered correctly by spelling out each lettering on her keyboard: D-U-R-H-A-M. Not fully knowing how to explain it, it was concluded that Lady Wonder had telepathic abilities.
Many of the claims made around Lady may have been stretched over time. For example, according to the National Enquirer, Lady went on to help solve the cases of missing persons with the police department, identifying the locations where they could be found. She also had several predictions including the USA and Russia involvement in the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt winning the presidential election for the third time in a row, and the winners of several sporting events before she died of a heart attack in 1957 at the age of 33.
Lady Wonder was an example of an extraordinary animal, and is also a lesson that we should not overlook the capabilities and minds of animals just because of their species. They can surpass us with their talents and there is still much more to learn about inter-species communication. Lady Wonder just happened to be an exceptional case.
Image from the journal "Abnormal and Social Psychology" Vol 23, 1929.