For 37 years Karen Murdock has dedicated her life to horses, doing everything from dressage and barrel racing to jumping and trail riding. But in all her experiences she has never encountered a horse quite like Lukas. Starting out as a downtrodden “racetrack reject,” Lukas is now known to many as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet because of Murdock’s soft-spoken training techniques.
Registered by The Jockey Club under the name Just Ask Mike, Lukas was not cut out for the racetrack, as his former connections quickly learned following his three back-of-the-pack finishes. Murdock caught her first glimpse of the chestnut son of Crystal Water in a local horse trader magazine advertisement. Listed for $2,000, he was described as a “ten-year-old green project horse.”
“He was just what I was looking for,” said Murdock, who boards Lukas at a ranch near Walnut, Calif. “For me the fun is in the training and seeing the changes in them.”
Murdock decided to put Lukas into dressage competition training, with the intent of showing him at local events. But the gelding suddenly became extremely resistant and displayed dangerous behavior. Murdock discontinued the program, but it seemed the damage had already been done.
“He was sullen, spooky, bucking, and bolting—like a switch had gone terribly wrong,” she said. On one especially disappointing day Murdock decided to fall back on her trick-training experience in an attempt to bridge the chasm that had grown between Lukas and her.
“I was hoping to use the games as a way to connect with him and establish a mutually enjoyable relationship,” she said. “We started with the ‘smile’ trick and I began to notice a definite shift in his attitude and behavior, so we just continued on and on.”
Lukas’ repertoire now includes nodding “yes” and shaking his head “no,” kissing, catching and fetching, giving curtsies, waving, performing a Spanish walk, bowing, playing hide-and-seek, staying and coming, rearing, pushing a barrel, spelling (five-letter words), counting (up to five), identifying shapes, distinguishing among three colors, and putting a hoop on a cone.
Murdock, a retired psychiatric nurse, noted that all Lukas’ tricks are done at liberty without a whip. She bases her training approaches on kindness, patience, and positive reinforcement.
“Lukas caught on very quickly and showed an extraordinary capacity and eagerness for learning,” Murdock said. “I gauge all lessons based on the horse’s response and then modify them as needed. When the horse is improving, is relaxed and enjoying the sessions, and shows enthusiasm, then I know that we’re on the right track.
“By incorporating mutual enjoyment to establish respect, joy, and appreciation, our connection deepened,” she added. “I find that what is most amazing to me is that he wants to do so much for me and even initiates play to the point that my laughter alone now is his reward.”
Murdock has used the same methods she tried with Lukas to train other horses of varying breeds, ages, and backgrounds with considerable success.
“The beauty of this style is that it can be used for such a varied group with any number of issues and can be done in short sessions to the extent of the trainer’s aspirations,” said Murdock. “I definitely believe that other racehorses would benefit—they thrive on activity and are very responsive.”
It was only four months ago that Murdock decided to make Lukas’ story public and posted several of his training videos on YouTube. Within weeks the video views had climbed to more than 5,000.
To date, Lukas’ story has been picked up globally by such television networks as NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and HLN. He has also been featured in a number of newspapers and periodicals, and Web sites such as Yahoo and Google have listed him as “The World’s Smartest Horse.”
Murdock noted that the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER) recently sent her another horse named Cee Mister B, an 8-year-old claimer who had raced five seasons and made 36 starts, for re-training. Within two days the gelding calmly free-longed around Murdock, halted when asked, came when called, and followed her everywhere. Within a week she was riding him without any problems.
“It’s funny now, but people used to tell me that Thoroughbreds were too ‘flighty’ to train and tease me about my ‘racetrack rejects,’ ” said Murdock. “No one has said anything to me like that now in a very long time.”
With a world-renowned trickster named Lukas to prove them wrong, who would even dare?