Our Monday Motivation series on GuinnessWorldRecords.com profiles the inspiring stories of commitment, courage and dedication behind some of our most extraordinary titles. This week we're placing the spotlight on a special gelding named Lukas, a rejected race horse who became a record holder for his outstanding intelligence with the help and love of his owner Karen.
There are few things that Karen Murdock loves in her life more than her companion Lukas.
He’s smart, stubborn, and shows affection whenever they have a moment to spend time with one another.
Karen, from Walnut, California, adopted the thoroughbred in 2003, a decision that would change her life forever.
“He came to my attention as a ‘project horse’ something I had seen in a classified advert – he wasn’t working out for anyone, it seemed.”
When responding to the listing in a newspaper, Karen had no idea Lukas’ back story was more than just an owner looking to giveaway a horse.
The nine-year-old gelding had been shifted from several homes after being rejected from the horse racing industry in 1996.
A contributing issue was that Lukas possessed a distinct contempt for having his will being forced, creating an uphill battle for anyone attempting to train him for the races.
Within the equestrian world, it is often said that a thoroughbred with a strong, nearly wild competitive spirit makes for an ideal race horse – but this was not the case for this particular steed.
The issue came to the fore during Lukas’ first race.
After maintaining a position in last place throughout the race, he shocked onlookers by collapsing at the finish line from sheer over-exertion.
From that moment, Lukas was handed-off. Sadly, before making it to the home that listed him the classifieds, he was found abused, neglected and starved.
According to Karen, who had transitioned her career from psychiatric nursing to horse training, this level of damage was detrimental to any animal’s mentality.
With Lukas being nine - midlife in human years - the abuse he received was equivalent to decades of harshness, deprivation, and neglect – issues that overlap with the sort of human trauma Karen would have been used to observing during her time in her previous care.
Karen was in doubt that she would need to tread lightly with a gelding that had suffered so much during its rehab and development.
Assuming he had suffered from lack of structure, Karen determined that the precise, articulate, and measured movements of dressage training would be exactly what Lukas needed.
However, this wasn’t the case. Before she could get Lukas to the core parts of this style of riding, he began to resist violently – bucking, jerking and spooking easily.
The approach was proving to be more dangerous and harmful than encouraging.
So Karen paused, assessing how she would continue to pursue her project horse - giving up on him the way others had so willing done was not an option.
“Using my prior career experience, I came up with a training protocol based on 30 years of behaviour modification techniques developed during my work on intensive locked patient units. I became aware that Lukas enjoyed learning and improving as much as any of my patients did, as long as I presented the material in an acceptable, understandable and positive manner.”
Understanding that her new horse seemed to function in a more unique way than other horses, she decided to get creative with her tactics. She found a desk to present Lukas with different objects; this is where she would teach him, utilising repetition and voice commands.
For their first session, Karen placed a series of flat, circular pipe covers, across the surface of the table, with one shapely object in the line.
She then took the shape away, wondering if the gelding would comprehend that things were different – her way of seeing if he would respond to the concept of “absentness”.
A few moments later, Lukas placed his nose around the area where the missing object was located just moments before.
“The ramifications, of course, nearly broke my heart,” said Karen, “In this way, Lukas told me that not only do horses know when something is present, they also know when and what has gone: love, care, friends, food, etc. If only touching could also bring those back.”
Nonetheless, once she witnessed this demonstration of intelligence, she tried other tests with the horse, slowly discovering he could find a green towel, even when hidden, and point out which object was from a series was different.
The missing spark had ignited between horse and owner.
“Our relationship blossomed as we explored what he wanted to do, and also as our bond. Yes, I would call it ‘love’. Once it grew, his attempts to please me expanded a thousand fold. You see, I had no preconceived notions about his capacities or potential – I merely wanted to bring forth what he had in him, what he wanted to offer. I think this in turn, allowed Lukas to give all he had.”
To her surprise and satisfaction, Lukas responded well to her training.
By allowing the chestnut gelding to set his own pace, breaking simple tasks down into simple steps, and using enthusiastic encouragement, he not only started to behave more compliantly, but showcased a spark of intelligence that was seemingly overlooked by all of his former owners.
“Lukas would intently focus and attempt to understand. This was what was significant to me - he was making every effort with all of his might to comprehend what I was asking, and he truly enjoyed it."
Through a series of games, Karen discovered her once abondoned race horse could accomplish numerous tasks - which many would assume to be out of a horse’s intellectual capabilities.
Lukas could not only recognise his reflection in a mirror, he understood when an object was absent when it should be present, indicating “yes” or “no” by tilting his head, as well as the ability to identify shapes, letters, and most importantly numbers.
With this breakthrough, Karen now understood Lukas to the fullest extent.
He seemed to mirror her in a way that matched her past, needing others to adapt to a system in order to get a positive reaction.
Karen herself had once faced her own decree of loneliness and adversity.
Growing up in an abusive family, and being placed in the foster care system for some time, she too had experienced a severe amount of neglect, cruelty, and lack of care.
As a teenager, she escaped her brutal (and final) foster family, and was homeless for over a year in cities across the United States, simply trying to survive.
It wasn’t until she was adopted by an empathetic truck driver and his wife years later that she was able to start working her way through eight years of college, where she would eventually earn three degrees, and begin her career as a psychiatric nurse.
“The soft spot I have for misfits and throwaways is quite deep, personal and fulfilling. I’ve slowly realised that in helping others, we are also helping ourselves to heal.”
Recognising how far they had both come in their lives together, Karen wanted to spread awareness, with the hopes that other animals like Lukas would be perceived as intelligent, loving beings rather than being abused.
“I decided to achieve a Guinness World Records title to promote the kind treatment of animals, and ensure that Lukas’ accomplishment was documented so that others would attempt to duplicate his progress.”
So eight years later Karen applied for the title Most numbers identified by a horse in one minute, optimistic that Lukas would be the first in history to achieve the title.
According to the official guidelines, Lukas would need to identify numbers at random by a pre-determined signal – a tough challenge on top of the short, 60 second time frame.
But coaching the former racehorse repeatedly appeared to only remind him of his demanding past - and once Karen realised he was not responding well, she quickly apologised, and returned to the “games” they would usually play.
“Lukas is special because of his capacity to figure tasks out using his full attention and focus while retaining such exuberance! And of course, because of his limitless love and devotion. I trusted him to do his best and that I would be all that he needed in order to accomplish what we set out to do.”
On the day of the attempt, Lukas geared up for the test of his life.
For both horse and owner, they had arrived to this point based on respect, love, dedication and most importantly, by supporting one another in every way possible.
So when another opportune moment to succeed faced Lukas again, this time, at the final sprint, Lukas did anything but buckle under the pressure.
After submitting evidence of their attempt at the title, the duo were informed by Guinness World Records that Lukas had proficiently identified 19 numbers in the span of sixty seconds, making him an official record holder and to his growing fan base, “the world’s smartest horse.”
Since his record-breaking accomplishment, Lukas has made several media tours, TV appearances, and performed at schools, aiming to enlighten anyone who will watch that an average horse may just have a trick or two up its sleeve.
At present he is retired, maintaining his days at a local stables with Karen visiting each and every day.
He still “whinneys” whenever he sees her, eager for their next game.
“I’m much more patient than I used to be and allow others the space to be who they are. I’m filled with gratitude for the experience of being with Lukas these past 14 years and for the honor of being a part of his accomplishments. No matter your background, limitations, or past problems - with the right approach and mindset, we can do what we are destined for and fulfill our purpose. Every day I still tell people that Lukas is the epitome of recovery, and that we should all strive to emulate someone who is able to overcome an ingrained and horrific background. I find his story to be a fascinating testament to the will to survive and excel – Lukas has become my greatest inspiration.”