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11 famous horses from history

By: Jaymi Heimbuch on Aug. 26, 2016, 2:10 p.m.
Beautiful Jim Key was a famous performing horse, trained by William Key

Photo: Albert R. Rogers/Wikipedia

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Beautiful Jim Key

Famous horses aren't only found on battlegrounds or race tracks. The story of Beautiful Jim Key takes a different turn.

This handsome horse was a performer during the turn of the 20th century. He was known as the smartest horse on Earth and could, among many skills, count and do math, spell words by selecting letters from an alphabet, cite Bible verses, tell time, use a phone, and take cash to a cash register and bring back correct change.

The horse and his trainer were a huge act, traveling around the country performing before amazed audiences from 1897 to 1906. They were the biggest act of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. By the end of their tours, they were seen by an estimated 10 million people.

But perhaps equally as wonderful as the horse’s abilities was the story of his trainer. "Dr." William Key was a former slave and a self-taught veterinarian who advocated for the kind treatment of animals. He trained Beautiful Jim without the use of a whip.

Anita Lequoia writes, "Animal organizations took note of the excellent treatment Beautiful Jim received, and activists that might normally picket animal acts instead presented Dr. Key and Jim with awards! William Key was the first African American recipient of MSPCA's Humanitarian Gold Medal, and Beautiful Jim Key was the first non-human recipient of multiple humane and literacy awards. Two million children joined the 'Jim Key Band of Mercy' and signed his pledge. The pledge simply stated, 'I promise to be kind to animals.' That’s a mighty fine pledge!"

Together, Doc Key and Beautiful Jim made strides toward the humane treatment of animals, and breaking down barriers for African Americans. As Mim Eichler Rivas writes on the Beautiful Jim Key website, "The idea that a horse could actually do all that he appeared to do remains as controversial today as it did a century ago, probably more so. Yet what is crucial is that by appearing to do all that was claimed of him, Beautiful Jim Key and Dr. William Key managed to change the world."