Playing With Lukas by Karen Murdock. Paperback, 117 pages. Available at www.playingwithlukas.com.
Reviewed by Mary Daniels
This is the most unique book on training I have yet to see, though it can be called that only in the broadest sense of the word. Author Karen Murdock heads one of her chapters with a quote by Helen Keller, who overcame blindness and deafness to become an icon of spiritual strength: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” This is what this self-published book really is about–how two beings, who couldn’t find their place in life, finally did through each other. It’s a wonderful story of the triumph of spirit.
Lukas is a 17-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who bombed on the racetrack and ended up emaciated and forlorn in a backyard until someone took pity on him. He was ultimately found in 2002 at the age of 9 by Murdock, a rescue trainer for more than 30 years in California. Despite her experience, she found challenges she had never met before. He was sullen, resistant, aloof and spooky to the point of being dangerous. But she was up for it, and her patience and compassion transformed Lukas into an Internet sensation, dubbed by both Yahoo and Google as “The World’s Smartest Horse.”
Lukas has attracted global attention for his tricks at liberty, his movements, such as Spanish walk and passage, and his phenomenal skills, such as spelling, counting and identifying shapes and colors. His Facebook friends number more than 5,000, and he is now spokeshorse for the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, TROTT (Training Horses Off The Track) and CANTER (the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses).
In the book, Murdock shares the extraordinary journey that made Lukas the poster horse for the potential of all horses facing untimely ends as slaughter candidates. Lukas had serious behavioral problems, bucking and spinning, as well as health problems. The question comes to mind, what made her stick it out, when friends suggested it would be better for both of them if he went to the feedlots.
Murdock gives her own background as the answer. She came from a troubled family–a teen runaway, school dropout, homeless wanderer and teenage mother. “I had no idea how to be in the world, no concept of conversation or interaction skills, I was entirely lost,” she says. “But sometimes you can save yourself by saving others in need.”
Through her love for animals, the dogs of her childhood and horses, particularly Thoroughbreds, Murdock, rehabbed herself, going back to school and becoming a psychiatric technician. She worked in psychiatric facilities in lockdown units, applying the power of love and acceptance to severely damaged human beings.
Dressage had always appealed to her, and she tried formal training at the start of Lukas’ career, but it did not work out. So she created her own method, achieving impressive results. She uses a form of liberty training–no whip but with subtle physical cues–in a non-confrontational way. Her three primary tools are “shaping” (light touch), a behavior modification term; a version of clicker training, using vocal sounds instead; and positive reinforcement.
Murdock did it her way and feels Lukas gave her as much as she gave him. Their journey serves as an example of how far-reaching the healing powers of love and compassion can be.