When the former Thoroughbred racer Lukas found his way to Karen Murdock six years ago, there were no indicators that he would be a life-changing horse for his owner. “I was only hoping to show him in a few lower level dressage tests,” she says.
A full time psychiatric nurse at the time, Murdock planned to do what she’d done with several other horses over the years: “Put a few tricks on him and sell him to a good home.” Lukas, however, had other ideas. Today, the now 16-year-old liberty horse phenomenon happily does a free passage, Spanish walk, jambet and other haute ecole dressage movements. He spells, identifies shapes and discriminates colors, just to name a few of his stellar stunts.
Karen and Lukas
“People everywhere mention to me that they didn’t realize a horse could understand things like Lukas is able to,” says Murdock. Her main mission now is to make Lukas a poster boy for the potential of all horses, especially those facing bleak circumstances. That had been the case for Lukas, who bowed two tendons as a youngster being prepared for the track, where he never wound up racing. He was first taken on by a family with no horse owning experience, then taken over by Sue Smith, who took pity on the then neglected, malnourished horse. Murdock bought Lukas from Smith.
Although Murdock is new to the computer world, she joined the Internet era this year and is thrilled with the results. YouTube footage of Lukas going about his tricky business has been widely viewed and distributed. It ranges from his at-liberty high level dressage moves to walking on his own down a driveway to play hide and seek with his towel. The videos have prompted moving feedback and requests from rescue operations to enlist Lukas in efforts to promote the needs and abilities of their charges. “If people know that horses are smart, they’ll be less likely to hurt them,” Murdock observes.
Lukas’ tricks are dramatic and fun, but their main value is their ability to “be a bridge to building a bond of communication between us,” says Murdock. “It’s a way for us to communicate and have fun together.” “Playful” is a word that crops up often in the owner’s description of her interactions with Lukas and of what he does on his own when out in a paddock. With Murdock and on his own, Lukas regularly entertains friends at Brookside Equestrian Center in Walnut, near the border of Orange County and Los Angeles. “To see how much he enjoys the whole experience helps us all see what can come of patience, forgiveness, resilience, strength of character and focus,” Murdock says.
In her work with Lukas, Murdock is simply thrilled to be “putting good out into the world.” She is happy to share her training techniques with others to help them achieve such a bond with their horses, but she does not plan a profit making venture out of it. Demand for how-to help is such that Murdock is thrilled to be co-writing a book with Love On A Leash founder, dog trainer and author Liz Palika. In response to growing requests, Murdock is available for individual and small group sessions.
“I don’t own a whip,” Murdock says. “There’s no need to force or to coerce them. It’s all about training from a voluntary perspective.” Lukas was a quick study and has become even quicker. “He’s learned how to learn,” Murdock explains. “The process actually helps their minds. Lukas now absorbs information and is able to generalize it to other information. Now, the tricks come so quickly. He’s usually two or three steps ahead of me. The training process is like a big, huge game. It’s a way for us to play together.”
Of all the remarkable things Lukas has learned, the seemingly simple task of standing still on his own was the most difficult to teach him. “He always wants to be with me,” says Murdock of the horse who nickers when her car pulls into the Brookside driveway. “He thinks he’s being punished when I ask him to stay.”
Murdock’s system as a way to connect more deeply with a horse is appealing to a wide variety of riders. “A lot of riders in my age group (51) are tired of showing: of expending all that energy and time to get a fifth-place ribbon. Tricks make a new level of connection possible and the possibilities are endless.” Furthermore, anyone can do it. “Lukas is a very average horse and I’m a very average person,” she asserts. “Anybody of any age can learn it and its applications suit just about any horse breed, age or issue. The system is so flexible it can be done in minutes or you can spend hours at it depending on your time and goals. The tricks become a tool to improve attention span, focus and performance. ”
The foundation of Murdock’s training is based on getting “small agreements” using kindness and patience, “then building on that in a new and positive direction during which time you’re both having a lot of fun.”
Her system translates beautifully into under-saddle work because the horse becomes super sensitive to the lightest of cues. “The aids can become as small as you want to make them,” Murdock says. The relaxation and happy mind that result from their enhanced relationship has contributed to a dramatic improvement in Lukas’ gaits, she adds. The Thoroughbred’s gaits were low and choppy when she got him and are now elastic, light and fluid. “It’s so easy to sit, it’s like floating,” she enthuses.
Equally important, the process has eliminated Lukas’ former spookiness by desensitizing him to normal and not-so-normal activities. When the equine star of an Advil TV commercial shoot was a no-show recently, Lukas was called in as a last minute understudy. “There were lights, cameras and film crew filling up the entire indoor arena,” Murdock reports. “Lukas was surrounded by all this stuff and people and it was no problem for him.” She credits that to the confidence and trust built in the training.
To find out more about Lukas and Karen Murdock’s training techniques, visit www.playingwithlukas.com, e-mail comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Murdock at 714-403-7730.