Lukas, the World’s Smartest Horse (according to the World Records Academy) and Guinness World Record Holder (“Most numbers correctly identified by a horse in one minute: 19”), has joined an elite group: those with the capacity for self-awareness. He has proved that he is able to recognize his own reflection in a mirror as an image of himself. To date, only humans (after the age of eighteen months), great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants and European magpies have successfully passed this test.

For this experiment, Karen Murdock, Lukas’ owner/trainer, utilized the mirror test, developed by Gordon Gallup in 1970 (based on observations by Charles Darwin). It determines whether an animal can recognize its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself. Lukas’ four by six foot Plexiglas mirror, two inch round stickers and the following steps were used:
- Covertly marking Lukas with two odorless spots: the test spot was on a part of Lukas which was visible in front of a mirror, and the control spot which was placed on an accessible but hidden part of his body (to rule out tactile involvement).
- Videotaped recordings documented whether Lukas reacted in a manner consistent with his being aware that the test spot was located on his own body, rather than on the mirror, while ignoring the control spot.
- Indications of awareness included: turning and moving his body so he could better view the marking in the mirror, or poking at the marking on his body with his muzzle while viewing the mirror.
- If Lukas didn’t recognize his image, Murdock would have attempted to teach this to him. No prior access to mirrors and not having the necessary previous experiences to use them could possibly have been a factor in the event of Lukas’ non self-recognition.

For conclusive duplicable evidence, Murdock included additional preliminary steps:
- Teaching Lukas the spot touch (held in different locations).
- Lukas learning to go to the mirror and looking at himself when requested to do so.
- Lukas standing immobile in front of mirror, despite trainer’s movements.
- Lukas recognizing test spot when held in reflection (spot initially put on paper plate which was gradually trimmed down) and attempting to touch it.
- Lukas going away from the mirror to trainer and returning to mirror when requested to do so.
- Lukas standing immobile in front of mirror even with trainer’s hand touching and stroking him (to prepare for covert test spot application).
- Trainer in front of Lukas and touching Lukas’ chest without him moving.
- Covertly placing the spot on Lukas (both at the mirror and away from the mirror) and waiting for his response.

According to most animal intelligence ranking scales, equine statistics are dismal: horses rank anywhere from fifth to ninth in intelligence comparisons between species. In addition, the horse population in general is thought to be a typically reactive group at the mercy of flight instincts and walnut-sized brains. Murdock believes that the commonly used repetitive machine trials to assess horses’ learning capabilities are missing some important components: a social and interactive element, voice prompts and reinforcement variations. Furthermore, she proposes that the prevailing methods of force training are inadequate and even counter-productive. In contrast, Lukas’ lessons resemble those used for children: enjoyable, gentle and a mutual exploration into possibilities. A rather unscientific, yet significant supportive substantiation of Lukas’ self-awareness abilities includes the fact that he is entirely intolerant of any horse near “his girl,” yet, in the test, he gave no indication that he believed his reflection to be an interloper.

The most difficult aspect of the test according to Murdock involved Lukas remaining immobile when the test spot was absent: “He always wants to do something to please me,” says Murdock, “and he’s used to trying out different behaviors to get my attention.” In this case, a compromise was reached as the video below will demonstrate. As always, Murdock, a psychiatric nurse for the last twenty-six years, and an animal trainer for over forty years, used her own particular blend of techniques. Sessions with her dear friend were brief, fun and tender and included the following guidance: “That’s you in the mirror, Lukas. You’re a horse. I love you.”

Video link:

Author's Bio: 

Copyright 2011 Karen Murdock is a retired psychiatric nurse, who has been fixing problem horses for over 30 years. Owner of She uses a combination of shaping techniques, a specialized version of clicker training and positive reinforcement. Her unique approach uses games and play as a way to connect and bond with horses to develop confidence, increase focus, improve performance as well as build willingness and trust. All of her services and proceeds go to benefit the horses.