Book Review: Playing with Lukas

Playing with Lukas: How a Woman and a Horse Found a Private World of Animal Intelligence and Themselves, by Karen Murdock

Who is the world’s smartest horse?

For at least a century, horse lovers have pointed to Jim Key, the clever trick horse of Civil War veteran William Key, D.V.M., as the smartest horse ever. Today, however, a chestnut thoroughbred gelding named Lukas (registered as “Just Ask Mike”), may have challenged Jim Key’s longstanding status for equine intelligence. 

Playing with Lukas, by Karen Murdock, offers an inside look at a remarkable partnership between a human and a horse. Lukas, a discarded retired racehorse, was labeled unmanageable and unfit for jumping, dressage or any other equestrian discipline. With two bowed tendons and an unimpressive racing record, the horse was headed for a most uncertain future.

However, Karen Murdock, a determined horsewoman and former psychiatric nurse, saw a potential in the off-the-track thoroughbred (OTTB) and rescued him. With plenty of time, careful observation, training and patient interaction, Karen Murdock and Lukas actually rescued one another, forming an astonishing alliance through trick training and horse play. The retired racehorse, once deemed distrusting and dangerous, surprised Karen Murdock and the equestrian world with his ability to balance such physical challenges as the passage and Spanish walk with such cognitive achievements as matching colors, shapes and numbers.

In her 2010 book, racehorse rescuer and trainer Karen Murdock outlines this process, sharing her personal experience with her now treasured equine companion. What is Karen Murdock’s secret, as she works with a challenging off-the-track thoroughbred? “A genuine sense of appreciation and enthusiasm go a long way in training – and in life,” she writes. Perhaps herein lies a lesson for us all.

Karen Murdock’s book, which began as a collection of training tips, actually offers more of a personal memoir. The opening pages of Playing with Lukas, by Karen Murdock, include dozens of quotations and endorsements from diverse equestrian leaders and animal lovers. Playing with Lukas is filled with personal anecdotes and memorable musings from the author, who traces her seven-year initial relationship with Lukas, as he learned to trust her and to perform far beyond anyone’s expectations.

“When your training is correct,” Karen Murdock says, “the tricks are only a by-product and happen in an almost effortless, uncalculated way.” The author confesses that she does not even own a horse whip.

Included in Playing with Lukas, by Karen Murdock, is plenty of the author’s own biography, setting the stage for her compassionate friendship with her special rescue horse. With a difficult childhood and few long-term relationships, the author’s own personal transformation of trust is as amazing as that of her beloved Lukas.

Early in her story, Karen Murdock pens this most telling statement about Lukas, her equine companion and project: “I now knew that I wouldn’t give up on him the way I had been cast off. I was determined to find a way through.”

Available in paperback and Kindle formats, Playing with Lukas is an intriguing and heart-warming read for anyone who loves horses or simply a feel-good story. The book displays penetrating insights into the possibilities of human-to-animal friendships. Could it be that animals (such as horses) are smarter than humans may have suspected?

The author’s technical training tips may prove useful to equestrians. Many horseback riding enthusiasts may be surprised to discover how much of the horse training and equestrian recreation may occur on the ground, rather than under saddle. What’s more, Karen Murdock’s transparent tracing of her own personal development make Playing with Lukas a gripping read, filled with hope and potential.

Reviewer’s Note:
This book reviewer received a complimentary copy of the book described and evaluated here, although the reviewer has no prior or existing relationship (either familial or professional) with the author or publisher.

Lukas quickly became a darling of the equestrian world, thanks to owner/trainer/author Karen Murdock and her compassionate network of horse-lovers. Major media outlets (such as ABC, CBS, CNN, HLN, NBC and RFD), major media (such as the Associated Press, American Horse Publications, Blood Horse Magazine, The Mane Point and The Horse) and internet sites (such as EquiSearch and Equine Connection) have featured Karen Murdock and Lukas, tagging him the world’s smartest horse.

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What happens to racehorses, once they are no longer fit to race? Beyond the Homestretch, by Lynn Reardon, traces the development of a racehorse rescue program. Beyond the Homestretch is a worthy read for anyone who loves horses.
Credit: Beyond the Homestretch: What I've Learned from Saving Racehorses, by Lynn Reardon  |  © Cover photo from press packet
About the Author: Karen Murdock

Karen Murdock, author of Playing with Lukas, is a retired nurse who has spent more than three decades working with difficult horses. Throughout her equine experience, Karen Murdock has employed clicker training, liberty exercises and positive reinforcement to build confidence and willing compliance with her horses. Karen Murdock is based in Walnut, California.

Book cover/ promotional photos/fair use

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