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November 17, 2009

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Mystery of bonds that turned broken hack into Internet star

LUKAS was all bite, buck and bitterness before Karen Murdock adopted the horse six years ago and made him an Internet star.

Murdock introduced the 16-year-old thoroughbred to carrots and kindness, helped him forget years of abuse and taught him tricks.

He can smile, yawn, kiss, nod, identify shapes, numbers and letters, fetch, wave, salute, pose and stretch - and he does some of it with his front feet on a pedestal.

The 544-kilogram gelding has a Website, is a star on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and has been on TV. He and Murdock get up to 200 e-mails a day.

The story of Lukas has to be patched together in places. California bred, he ran in three races as a 2-year-old under the name Just Ask Mike, but "he was a back-of-the-packer. His heart wasn't in it," Murdock says.

Between 1995 and 2001, he probably changed hands a couple of times. When a Southern California horse trainer saw Lukas in a yard: "He was malnourished, neglected and emaciated. His tail was a solid mat of mud and debris," Murdock says. The trainer bought him, then sold him to Murdock for US$2,000 in 2003.

"I had to let his mane grow long so I would have something to hold on to when he did this wild, spinning, bucking kind of thing," Murdock says. "He would spook in his own stall. He had a whole lot of fears and phobias. You couldn't touch his ears. There were no scars, just mental worries, apathy and mistrust."

It took her a year to untrain him.

"I use trick training as a tool to bridge what is not right into what I want," says Murdock, who has been working with horses since she was a teenager. "Lukas flourished. He cannot get enough of learning. He's like a sponge."

Now he is a liberty horse (performs without tack) who can do the Spanish Walk (front and back), passage (a hesitating trot) and jambet (a three-legged pivot). He also does the bow, obeisance (curtsey with his face between his legs) and rear (goes up on his hind legs).

The Human-Equine Alliances for Learning in Chehalis, Washington, which offers programs in psychotherapy and personal growth, asked to study Lukas. Lukas and Murdock show the "connectedness" that enables horses to be so therapeutic for humans, HEAL spokesman David Young says.

But it's unlikely the study will clear up history's mystery question about smart horses.

There is no scientific data to support the notion that horses have the cognitive ability to count, spell or read, says Dr Emily Weiss, the ASPCA's equine behavior expert.

She looked at Lukas' Website.

"What is more amazing and more astonishing (than intelligence) is that this horse is so cued in, has such an incredible bond with its owner, such a great understanding of his human. The way they interact is pretty profound," she says.

There have been parallels drawn between Lukas and Beautiful Jim Key, an Arabian horse who may have performed before as many as 10 million people from 1897 to 1906 because of what seemed to be his ability to read, write, spell, count, tell time, sort mail and use a telephone and cash register.

Weiss also tells the story of Clever Hans, a horse in Germany in the 1890s owned by William von Osten. He was said to be able to spell or solve any math problem by simply stomping his hoof with the answer.

"He was all over the news. It was astounding," she says.

Clever Hans was challenged at every turn - there was even a Hans Commission. Professor Carl Stumpf and a man named Oskar Pfungst tested Clever Hans and determined the horse was getting cues so subtle that even the questioners didn't realize they were giving them.

"It wasn't that the horse knew math, he was just very cued into human behavior," Weiss says. "The horses are reading the behavior of their person instead of understanding the language of science."

Murdock doesn't care why Lukas does his tricks or the reasons for their bond.

When she arrives each day at the Brookside Equestrian Center in Walnut, about 40 kilometers west of Los Angeles, Lukas greets her with big, sloppy kisses.

The Montana native and trained psychiatric nurse doesn't own a whip. Lukas performs for love and carrots - he eats 3 kilograms a day.

Lukas recently became the spokeshorse for the Southern California chapter of the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER), a national volunteer group that helps racehorses find second callings.

Every year, the careers of about 37,000 US thoroughbreds come to an end. About 2,000 of those ex-racehorses come from California and too many end up abandoned, abused or sent to slaughter.

Bonnie Adams, the Southern California chapter's director, believes Lukas is the perfect spokeshorse because of his background and turnaround.

"He's a very kind, quiet horse. But his eyes never leave Karen. You can see the love in his eyes," she says. "It shows people that horses really do have deep feelings. They are not throwaway animals."

Check for more about Lucas.


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