Lessons from the World’s Smartest Horse
As Lukas’ trainer, much of my experience has come from many years as a psychiatric nurse on acute-care locked down units. Take-downs. Even the name conjures up the octagon fight ring. Only there are no referees here. Technically speaking, take-downs are only supposed to occur if there is eminent danger to patients or staff and all other options have failed. Profanity, refusing to comply with assignments or the schedule, declining medications, insulting the Dr., racial slurs, poor hygiene or even threats do not fall into this description, although they’ve all been used as justifications at one time or another.
Ideally, a take-down team consists of 5 staff members who form an arc around the patient with the leader being the person who has the best rapport with that particular client. Each position has an assigned responsibility and target – arms, legs and the head person who is also in charge of monitoring staff locations and positions. In reality, mayhem often ensued – elbows in throats, knees dug into chests, wrestling moves that would have opponents tapping out – a tangled mangled mess. Not planned or intended for the most part, a situation that happens to worsen with every blow. Verbal conflict would escalate and the most impulsive member of the code team would initiate physical “intervention” – and the rest of the squad would be obliged to follow suit. Of course, the first staff to reach the patient was almost always going to get hit – punches, kicks, fists and knees flying – which made for further reckless and hasty mistakes.
Timing and waiting – this is what is often best but the hardest to do. From an early age are conditioned to do – something, anything! If we don’t, it is thought that we are weak, confused, and inept. Not so – even animals appreciate being given time to make a dignified response, even if it’s to comply or retreat. Fear and anger cause the most damage resulting in loss of control and harm. “I want a cigarette now! Not later! Right now, bitch, and don’t try to tell me what to do!” Testing, I decide, furtive glances mean lack of commitment; I don’t budge but continue to gaze at her unflinchingly. “I shouldn’t be here anyway! Give me my cigarette!” Long pause. Shoulders dropping, fist unclenching. I nod, “Smoke break is in 15 minutes; let’s go see about a fresh gown for you.” “O.K., thanks, sorry.” Over, never to be repeated, x 1000 outbursts with different patients.
Prone (laying stomach down) patients were safer it was thought…for the staff at least. Spitting, nasal discharge, freed limbs – less chance of employees encountering them, however, it was found through many investigations that patients were dying nation-wide in such predicaments. Drowning in their own vomit, obese patients whose hearts were strained beyond capacity, the elderly whose crinkly skin was peeled off to the bone, pregnancies that wound up as miscarriages. And so it was decreed by the regulating agencies that restrained patients be placed on their backs. A rise in staff injuries and medical leaves, urination fiascoes, gagging incidents (using washcloths, towels and clothes to prevent spitting by restrained patients) and deaths due to smothering along with multiple accusations of improprieties followed this ruling and it continues to remain a dilemma for healthcare to this day.
Raised voices in the TV room. The charge nurse, Rita, is ordering a teen-aged boy to turn down the volume. Uh-oh, I think, it’s just me in the med room preparing the afternoon doses, and the charge nurse of the adjoining unit in the nurse’s station. Why doesn’t Rita wait until the lunch hour ends and we have adequate back-up? Or, better yet, just ask the kid politely, for crying out loud. No, she needs it done “Right now or else!” and so I lock the cart and expect trouble. “Call for assistance, please,” I call over my shoulder to the other nurse and I enter the group room where the boy has squared off and the charge nurse is standing way too close to him. His wide bent-legged stance and puffed chest relay his intentions without any guesswork. Before I can take 2 steps toward them, he has grabbed her by her long hair and is swinging her in circles around him in a wild outrage. Screaming and thudding against the walls and furniture she flies – and we pile on the both of them in a flailing heap. Most take-downs ended up with at least bruises and some black eyes; this time the nurse went to the E.R. and wore a neck brace for over a month.
Michelle, a new boarder at the barn, showed up one day with a cast on her leg. “What happened to you?” I asked her in surprise. “Homer kicked me, can you believe it? – he wouldn’t let me pick out his back hoof so I smacked him good!” “Hmmm” – this is the response I’ve picked to keep me from saying what’s really on my mind – You mean you hit your horse when his foot was in the air and aimed at you? Don’t be a Michelle or Rita – pick your time and approach.
The new Spanish stallion at the barn was magnificent – Bandolero was well over 17 hands (so tall that I couldn’t see over his back), gleaming and powerful, gifted with breathtaking floating gaits, his long mane and tail twirled around him with every move. “I got a great deal on him,” the proud owner Mary tells me, as I wait to hear the rest. There’s always more I’ve discovered, and no horse is a bargain. “There’s only one problem with him,” Mary broaches worriedly; “He tries to kill you if you go in the arena with him.” A prancing exhibition horse, he had been whipped mercilessly. His previous owners had become too afraid of him to keep him after he began to protect himself. “I love him, Karen, will you help me?” Mary pleaded. Watching as he romped by himself while the wind tossed his snow white tresses in every direction, how could I refuse?
Bandolero had claimed the arena for now, I conceded, so I would pick my own place. You guessed it – the stall. Docile and sweet in his house – they never attacked him in there, long whips wouldn’t snap or sting in such a small area and the pseudo-trainers would be too vulnerable to his wrath. I explained to Bandolero the benefits of relaxing and stretching his neck when tension arose, introduced the whip (as Mary felt that she may need it in the future), and combined the calming exercises with the perceived threat. Instituting incompatible responses – that of relaxation and aggression – fixed the problem…in the stall. Would it work in the arena too? ”Get out, Karen, run!!” It was Mary, yelling at the top of her lungs – I had turned Bandolero out in the arena and was approaching him with the whip. He had caught sight of me and was galloping full tilt in my direction – I stopped and waited for him to reach me. Mary and the group of onlookers held their collective breaths – a sweep of my left hand, and Bandolero slid to a statuesque halt and lowered his head as his mane swept the sand. When possible – choose your ground.
“Dr. Strong,” the code for staff back-up, was best paged by the PBX operators according to administration – cool smooth voices not affected by the chaos of the units. “Dr. Strong to unit 1, Dr. Strong to unit 1” – casual monotone announcements that wouldn’t rile up the facility. Also, running in the halls was discouraged – appear in control and on top of it at all times, we were told. So when a frantic page screaming “Help in the gym!! Help!!” came over the loudspeakers, every desk emptied – even the accountants were sprinting to the gymnasium. Arriving on the scene, the room before me resembled a battlefield – bodies lying across the floor, thrashing and struggling – panicked patients and bewildered staff scattered to every corner. A disagreement about phone privileges had escalated from an off-hand remark to a full-blown riot. Rather than wait for the proper place – no audience, on the contained unit with adequate staff on hand, the staff member had slipped onto treacherous area. A soundproof room, 3 staff and 17 kids is no spot for an argument – use the right space to your advantage.
And then there’s cutting your losses. Joshua, a young man in his mid-twenties had been brought in to the hospital by his father earlier in the day. Threatening neighbors, verbally abusing his mother and punching walls – Joshua had agreed to receive treatment in order to return home. As the day wore on, his agreement waned. “Get me out of this nuthouse!” he screamed into the phone repeatedly, slamming the receiver down so hard it bounced off the hook and a voice could be heard swinging back and forth, “Please calm down, Joshua.” Pacing the halls, glaring at anyone who looked at him, veins on his arms popping. Code gray, a show of force, was called. Not a clear case of subduing, according to the charge nurse Allison, an old hand with decades of solid experience. So, a half dozen or so burly men nonchalantly strolled around the unit and waited for the signal. “Get the other patients in their rooms, space yourselves down the hall and give him room,” Allison ordered. As I watch, a look like no other settles on Joshua’s face – unmistakable in its chilling intent. His gaze is no longer focused – his eyes are looking right through us as if we don’t exist! To Joshua, we are no longer there and all that matters are his twisted thoughts. Wham, Wham!! As if to prevent himself from exploding, Joshua slams his head into the (shatter proof) glass partition with enough force to rattle the frame. The signal is given – Allison knows there’s no other choice at this point – she has seen the look too.
Regal, so named because of a crown shaped blaze on his forehead, was a sight to behold. A prize winning jumper with a price tag of a house – he was the pride of his amateur owner, Sandra. A troubling habit had surfaced however – Regal had become a bit bored with his job and had started inserting little hops into his landings. Drilling and demanding schooling led to increased resentment and more rigorous objections. An experienced junior rider had come off of him the previous week after a bucking episode “He knows just how to bounce you right off his back, I’m not getting on him again – he’s dangerous.” In the distance I can hear the sirens approaching “Don’t close your eyes, Sandra, look at me!” I tell the amateur-owner as I wipe dirt from her face. I’m cradling her in the arena after Regal dumped her, “I’m so sleepy, Karen, are you there, I can’t see you…” Several weeks of recovery followed and when Sandra returned to the barn, Regal was not there. Shipped to a sale barn with instructions that he be sold as a “flat” mount – no jumping allowed.
Follow Lukas’ adventures on his web-site: http://www.playingwithlukas.com
By Karen Murdock
Lukas Reveals His Secret Identity
“How on earth do you get Lukas to wear all those costumes, Karen?” Up until now, only Lukas’ closest friends know how this is done. Foot-long reindeer antlers, bobbing clovers that read “Kiss me, I’m Irish,” a full-size sombrero with a matching chili necklace, a hot water bottle (a big favorite the day after New Year’s Eve), floppy Easter ears with a matching flower boa, a wide-brimmed straw hat and hula skirt, a cowboy hat and bandana tied loosely around his nose with the caption “Hand over the carrots and nobody gets hurt,” and many more. Even more remarkable because I was told by the lady I bought him from that I’d never be able to get close to his ears. An odd objection, you might think – why would he care about his ears? Unfortunately, a common cruel practice by racehorse handlers and incompetent trainers is twisting a horse’s ears to obtain compliance – a very short-term and ineffective measure, to say the least. A horse’s ears are incredibly sensitive and delicate. Soft and fuzzy to keep out bugs and debris, they’re independently mobile to focus on a sound and screen out background noise to detect danger. From the first day, I talked to Lukas in a conversational manner – low murmurs and comforting drawn out reassurances – the way horse friends chat.
Figuring that fun and children go together and that laughter is a great healer, I chose costumes to represent the happy and playful side of animals. Since Lukas always wanted to do what I did, I tried on the outfits first and modeled them while doing chores so he’d get used to them. “Look, Lukas, isn’t this a cool hat? I bet you’d look soooo handsome wearing it. Let’s have a look, buddy.” Within minutes, he’d insist on parading around and showing off his handsomeness. With this, I always kiss him on the velvety spot between his nostril and upturned mouth – warm and fragrant like a furry flower. I’ve always preferred stalls on the outskirts of boarding properties for obvious reasons – the back row suits us just fine. One day I happened to be cleaning out Lukas’ stall and I heard, “Hello, anybody home?!” Forgetting I was wearing a Halloween hat, I emerged from around Lukas. “Oh! Um! Never mind!” was her startled reaction. “I can ex –“ Too late, she had already ducked around the corner. I felt the headband with the tall felt witch hat and yellow pigtails sticking straight out from the side of my head and couldn’t stop chuckling. I heard later that she was a prospective boarder who had inquired about a stall “anywhere but the back row.”
The back row fence of our stall bordered a rarely used public equestrian path. One day Lukas was on his pedestal close to the trail – I’d had in mind to teach him to smile and salute at the same time. As I cued with both hands, the breeze picked up and I looked up just in time to see the panicked eyes of two trail horses and their stunned riders. I was wearing a jingling court jester’s hat with bobbing curlies and bells on each tip. To complete the ensemble I had on a purple, gold, and lime green feather boa (for Mardi Gras). The breeze made the boa whip about and the little jingles chime. The last I saw of them were their back-sides skittering away from us as fast as possible.
A very dignified place, we kept our antics under cover …for the most part. Except for Lukas’ birthday, he struts around noiselessly in his costumes and peers at me under the hat brims with a voluntary grin. “I’m the most handsome of all; you can kiss me now.” Once a year, he’s allowed a noisemaker on his birthday. As I pull it out of the bag, he chomps eagerly, “This is mine, all mine – bring it here!” Looking around to make sure no one is nearby, I hand it over. Ahhh, squeak, squeak, mmmm, sqEEEaak! He grinds it in rhythm as I sing “Happy Birthday” to him, and his eyes glaze over in deep contentment.
Lukas’ adventures can be seen at: http://playingwithlukas.com
By Karen Murdock
Lessons from the World’s Smartest Horse
And so I snapped. What’d he expect? The same boring drills every day. And no sooner did I get something right than he’d turn around and want more. This so-called trainer who never so much as hummed or looked for a little spot that needed a rub or two. Just like at the racetrack – no matter how much you gave it was never enough. Why wouldn’t he go away and leave us alone? Karen and I were so happy without him and all of his ridiculous tactics that he tried to foist on me. Bending, he calls it! Like I can’t reach my own hock clear behind me to bite a fly already and I need his help to flex me? I think not. I don’t need to be pushed around; I’ll gladly cooperate for reasonable requests. Why couldn’t he see that? Some people look only as far as their egos.
To snap. This is a very serious condition for animals. We are taught from birth to keep our wits about us and not lose control. Even wild horses feint and simulate attacks to prevent injury. It’s risky to go all out in a confrontation – wounds and broken bones make us prime targets for hunters. Usually, animals are able to settle disputes civilly through threats and bluffing – no sense getting all banged up for nothing. Oh, I’d heard about the dire effects of snapping – wild horses running off cliffs from panic when chased by helicopters, stallions that refused to be contained in “holding pens” and impaling themselves on wooden fence stakes while trying to escape.
The last thing I remember is the flick of the whip and his telling Karen that I needed to be “more supple and engaged.” I never meant to fall. Besides snapping, falling is a most hazardous event for horses – we aren’t safe sprawled on the ground and all that weight crashing down is dangerous. But everything went blank and the next thing I knew my foot was caught on the pole. Ordinarily this wouldn’t pose a problem as horses jump over seven feet with air to spare. The angle – I was bent all right, crooked as a sidewinder – and my rage made it impossible to catch myself. I hit the ground hard and I heard the so-called trainer swear at me. All I could think about was getting away.
Running is something they can never take away from us; it’s all I had left now. And so I ran, blindly and wildly around the arena dodging jumps and hands grabbing for my reins. Past startled riders trying to steady their frightened mounts. I could see the alarmed look in their eyes as I careened past them. A mixture of pity and horror – a traitor to the serious atmosphere and submissive monotony. Surrounded, I stood trembling in a corner and the so-called trainer reached me first. I had been the only horse to ever unseat him and I braced myself for the confrontation I knew was coming. All eyes on us now, everyone awaiting the clash.
The blow was not the worst I’ve felt. I’ve probably rubbed and accidentally thwacked myself harder than the so-called trainer could swing. It was the hatred and indignity of it – the black emotions behind this slap in the face. That I was a thing to be used and punished – dealt with like an object. In that moment my mind shut closed. All that I had thought before was gone. In a haze I could see Karen stride up and take the reins from his hands, felt her slide her hands over my legs to check for injuries as she motioned for him to follow us. Still shaking and gasping for breath, I wobbly went with her back to the barn.
“We are done,” she simply said to him. The so-called trainer gave me one last look of disgust and nodded, “I understand.” What would happen next? I was too numb to celebrate and too weary to care.
By Karen Murdock
According to Lukas, World’s Smartest Horse
I’d give up a week’s worth of carrots to have a pair of hands right now. Just to scratch that spot on my back that’s been driving me crazy for the last 4 hours. The seasons mean more to us horses than bright scarves, new windshield wipers, the dreaded swimsuit ordeal and turning the clocks this way and that. As the days get shorter and cooler, our internal switch flips and things start to change inside us. Our coats become thicker and darker – no longer the sleek, flat look of summer and we look bundled up in our own hair. As a California horse and a Thoroughbred, I am spared a wooly mammoth likeness, however it is still an itchy and annoying mess come springtime.
Karen, my owner, does her best to help with the shedding – a pumice to pull and scrape the old clumps of fuzz away from my skin, a soft brush to rid me of its prickly presence, and smoothing with my terry towel to regain the plush shine. I often wish people knew about the importance of the seasons and how our lives mimic nature. The exuberant romping in fields during the high-spirited spring of youth, excitement and newness around every tree that is typical for this time of birth. While summer resembles the bursting exhilaration of adulthood, families and careers – relishing the seemingly infinite abundance. As fall enters our lives, we reflect and ripen – perspective and contemplation take precedence. Winter brings an individual acceptance and realization that our significance is dependent on the fulfillment of our personal destiny’s duty. Not some vague general “meaning of life” concept removed from reality, but a private culmination of countless small daily choices that produces the worth of our lives.
To distract myself from the incessant desire to scratch myself, I hang my whiskered chin over the stall door to watch the world. I take in the fervent activity around me – plump squirrels with stuffed cheeks, bumblebees intently rushing from one spot to another, butterflies and hummingbirds heralding the arrival of yet another blooming bush, and buds that whisper, “Soon, Lukas, very soon, things will change again.” Unbelievably another birthday has come and gone. All Thoroughbreds become a year older on January 1st – to keep the age groups easily defined for race conditions, though Karen waits for my actual birthday, January 17th, to celebrate with carrot cake. I try very hard not to think about birthdays and what they mean.
The property where I now live is bordered with magnificent towering trees. Not just any kind of trees, Karen tells me, but her favorite, pine trees. It reminds her, she tells me, of a faraway place where she grew up. And almost before I can see it come and go, a look crosses her face that makes me want to cry. According to scientists, the only land mammal that sheds “real tears” are elephants; the poor things have it rough, I’ve heard. Dolphins and crocodiles are also given this distinction for water mammals by some accounts. “Tear duct cleansing” is what they call what horses do – deeming us not capable of the big five: anger, fear, worry, grief and joy. These are too complex for such simple creatures, it is claimed. Yet, new research shows that fish and even plants experience these to some degree. Aah, the folly of egotistical scientific theories. The only thing that stops me from bawling is Karen. She smiles at me, like she always does, and asks me if I want to go for a walk.
Walking with Karen – this is what I live for. Everything about it still thrills me. And so begins our special game, so touching and familiar it’s almost embarrassing to give the details here. Karen carefully buckles my halter so it doesn’t pinch my skin – the leather so supple and well-fitting. “Oh, how handsome you are!” Karen never fails to exclaim as I nod in agreement so I can hear her laugh. A kiss completes the ritual and I feel like a fresh colt again. The first step into the sunshine when I take a huge breath that reaches down to my hooves – even the air is better out here! – celebrates the exploits awaiting us. This trip leads us along the path under the pine trees – a lacy canopy of branches above us and cushiony needles under our feet that make muffled crackling noises as we amble along. Pungent aromas from decades of decomposing layers mingle with the fragrant scent of wild honeysuckle patches climbing on the ancient winding fence. Lost in our thoughts yet still linked together, our steps fall into a matching rhythm and even our breathing follows a similar pattern. Out here on the trail with the breeze to soothe us and the birds serenading lyrically, there is nothing between us and we are recharged once again.
Four hawks nest in these trees and they float high above us scanning the fields for meals while calling for each other like children searching for their playmates. If you believe in legends (as all horses do), hawks symbolize strength and vision, and according to Native American lore they represent interconnectedness and reverence for life. Occasionally, we are treated to a fabulous aerial display of sensational swoops and seemingly motionless hovering – straight up and down with dizzying speed, sometimes so close their wings appear to touch and other times in a symmetrical loop balanced to a feather. Often, we notice that their flight has less to do with looking for food than the absolute pure joy of soaring together. When Karen and I are very still, completely absorbed with the spectacular scene, time melts away and we can glimpse into blissful eternity.
It was during one of these magical outings that I finally understood birthdays and what they mean. Karen’s love for me has given me a way to see and understand many things, and in the process, I also became more aware of feelings and developed a broader range of emotions and experiences than is typical for most horses. While this deepened bond will no doubt cause much pain upon parting, what will make it easier to bear is the precious closeness we now share and hold dear. Had it not been for our miraculous convergence and unusual combination, birthdays would only mean the passage of time rather than treasuring each and every moment together. The honor and gift of real tears comes from the depths of true love.
By Karen Murdock
Photo: Linda Walton