I’ve been hearing that a lot lately: “Horses can’t do that!” My eighteen-year-old rescued off-the-track Thoroughbred Lukas has been recognized as “The World’s Smartest Horse” by the World Records Academy and has attracted world-wide media attention for his cognitive and perceptive abilities. In addition, Guinness recently approved his record: “Most numbers correctly identified by a horse in one minute: 19.” Furthermore, he performs a wide variety of liberty (free) movements and tricks. All to show the happy results of kind training and how smart and wonderful animals are.
Lukas ran in three races as a two-year-old. Back of the pack finishes and injuries unceremoniously ended his race-track career. He changed homes several times, ending up neglected and emaciated in a yard belonging to people who didn’t know how to care for him or even what to feed him. A local jumper trainer noticed him while she was driving by and bought the then eight- year-old gelding out of pity: “He was skin and bones and his tail was a solid bat of dried mud.” She had hoped to rehabilitate him and eventually include him in her amateur jumping program. After two years though, he still “wasn’t fitting in,” according to her, and I found him advertised in a local newspaper as an “Inexperienced project horse.”
I immediately like his big, kind eye and thoughtful gaze, and after visiting him once more the next day, purchased him. Lukas’ extremely sensitive nature was soon going to become very obvious. Due to working at a challenging job at the time, I enlisted the help of a trainer to prepare Lukas for lower-level competition. Within a short time, Lukas reacted in dangerous and resistive ways: bucking, spooking and bolting. After discontinuing the trainer, I decided to train him myself and hopefully reclaim his trust.
I use a combination of shaping, clicker training and positive reinforcement along with intermediary markers to signal correct inclinations. As a psychiatric nurse for twenty-six years, I’ve borrowed behavior modification techniques from my career, and bits and pieces from over thirty years of studying every type of training elements from birds, zoo animals, dogs and marine mammals.
I started with face and neck tricks and progressed to more complex movements and behaviors. Lukas’ curious, eager nature sparked an exploration into cognitive and perceptual tasks as well. His current repertoire includes: the smile, pose, yes, no, kiss, fetch, sit, blindfold, catch, yawn, wave, pedestal work, Spanish Walk (forward and backward), stay and come, jambette (three-legged pivot), curtsey, passage, bow, crossing his front legs, lay down (and I sit on him), feet together, hide and seek, acting lame, pushing a cart and rearing. In addition, he is able to identify letters, numbers and shapes, discriminate colors, and he understands the concepts of spatial relationships, object permanence, proportion, same/different and absentness.
To date Lukas has been on NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, HLN, Inside Edition, and in feature articles released by the Associated Press and America Online. Also, his story has been heard on Pet Life Radio, Pet Talk Live Radio, RFD-Radio, and the Horse Radio Network, among others. He has been in countless magazines, newsletters, forums, blogs, on-line sites and newspapers. In addition, Lukas is the Spokeshorse for After the Finish Line and the Equine Welfare Alliance. Also, he is associated with HEAL (Human Equine Alliances for Learning), a therapy practice in Chehalis, Washington, that assists human trauma victims.
Lukas’ purpose continues to be to show the happy results of kind training. Horses can do all that – they just need to be taught in a way that they understand.
Photo Credit: Robert Johnson, Sharon Fibelkorn