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Suitable ages

for young llamas to begin

basic training, showing, packing and driving

There are several aspects to consider when deciding what age is best to start a young llama on a new task. Physical maturity is an obvious concern, but mental and emotional maturity are also important.

In the past, young llamas were rushed into adult tasks for economic gain and out of plain ol' impatience. Today, many of the old investment-driven recommendations are still recommended because "that's the way it's always been done." Of course, impatience is still a common human flaw. Those who unwittingly follow these ill-advised practices are often dismayed to find that they've condemned their llamas to long-term damaging side-effects, and that they've frequently lessened their own short-term enjoyment as well.

Physical maturity

Purebred llamas and guanacos do not reach full physical maturity until around four years of age. As in other mammals, females do mature earlier than males -- sometimes by as much as an entire year.

Llamas have a much greater range of age at maturity than other working animals. Physical maturity can be predicted fairly accurately in various dog and horse breeds. The llama population, however, has a mixed heritage of guanaco (late maturing) and alpaca/vicuna (early maturing) traits. Physical maturity is not linked to observable physical features -- you simply can't predict whether a given llama will follow a pattern of early, late, or intermediate maturity. The only safe advice is to assume that the llama will mature later rather than earlier.

Many structures can be permanently damaged by stressing them prior to physical maturity:

  • Tendons and ligaments are more flexible in young animals to accomodate growth. These suspensory structures are more vulnerable to stresses such as overstretching and overextension prior to maturity. Common damage includes "swayed" backs, weakened pasterns, and, in immaturely trained driving llamas, compromised patellar ligaments.
  • Skeletal damage occurs in association with suspensory damage and includes progressive vertebral damage as well as damage to leg joints that were not properly stabilized by weakened and compromised tendons or ligaments. Onset of arthritis at an early age or at unnatural sites is the most common manifestation.
  • Damage to one part of the body affects the whole. Habitual, improper use of muscles due to strain in another area results in secondary damage to structures in other areas. Damage to the back can alter gait permanently, for instance, and weak pasterns encourage the llama to straighten his or her hind limbs so that the front legs bear less weight.
  • Still-growing bone does not have the strength of mature bone. Rapidly-growing bone has even less strength, and so llamas who are very large at a relatively young age are actually more vulnerable to damage than their smaller, slower-growing counterparts. Comparative studies in other working species and in humans indicate that both rapid and slow growing individuals reach mature strength at the same time despite outward appearances. There is no evidence to indicate that llamas are any different.
  • Tendons and ligaments can take a year or more to reach mature strength after skeletal growth stops. Again, appearances do not correlate with strength.
  • A growing llama's body requires substantially better nutrition. Working or conditioning an immature llama beyond normal pasture activity robs his or her body of it's essential needs. A llama's digestive physiology is very efficient at extracting sparse nutrients, but it is not designed to take in a highly concentrated diet and turn it into excess energy, as is the case with horses and dogs. In llamas, it appears that much of the excess nutrients in an over-fortified diet are excreted rather than stored or redirected to growing tissues.
  • Some conformational defects and predispositions to breakdown do not become apparent until the llama nears maturity. Immature work can do serious, irrepairable damage before it is even apparent that the individual llama should not ever undertake certain activities.
  • If the young llama is overweight, he or she may already be "packing" significant additional poundage (a two-year-old can be 80 pounds). The addition of a load can literally be the straw that breaks down the camelid's back . . . or legs . . . or pasterns . . .

So what age is safe to begin working? It appears that llamas nearing physical maturity (three years of age) can begin to handle light loads with emphasis placed on the other, learned components of the tasks of packing and driving. Once the llama has spent a year learning the ropes and has reached physical maturity, gradual increase of his or her workload to adult capacity is appropriate.

Mental maturity and experience

As a llama matures mentally, attention span increases. Learning ability may also increase if the llama can build on previously acquired general knowledge of how to learn. A successful learning environment is also fostered by previous ingraining of acceptable manners and behavior. These latter elements are part of life-long preparation, and account for a significant amount of the differences in mental maturity in individual llamas of the same age.

Pushing the llama beyond his or her mental maturity level results in frustration for the llama and the likelihood that the intended lesson(s) will be resented and perhaps even evaded in the future. A benign task such as a dayhike without a pack can become a nightmare for the young llama who does not possess an adequate attention span. In his or her mind, the hike is perceived as an eternity. The young llama also lacks the background to understand that "we always return home," particularly if he or she no longer lives at his/her birth home. But adding a pack saddle (especially with weight) to this already-frightening scenario can result in a llama who gets sore or even hurt, evades component tasks (such as haltering, loading and saddling), and perhaps eventually refuses to travel very far up the trail at all because the entire scene triggers long-practiced fear and stress responses.

Emotional maturity

An immature llama does not have the confidence to protest when subjected to a painful pack saddle or an ill-fitting halter. The young llama learns that "humans hurt me" or "all pack saddles hurt" and in turn, will perfect the art of staying away from humans, humans carrying pack saddles, or whatever. An emotionally mature llama can be more specific in his or her objections and interpretation of actual cause.

Knowledgable handlers can "shelter" young llamas from discovering that the world does harbor painful equipment and humans that range from nincompoops to psychotics. Inexperienced and unknowledgeable handlers, however, won't know that they've inadvertantly portrayed part of the llama's world in a negative light until the damage is done. So in this regard, human knowledge is just as important as an individual llama's emotional maturity, and thus has significant bearing on timing training. Two cautions: First, remember that experience does not equate to knowledge. There are quite a few people out there who have extensive experience bullying immature llamas. And second, remember that just because an emotionally immature llama is no match for a goal-oriented, reality-blind human does not give that human the right to intimidate the llama before he or she gets old enough to respond to cruelty.

Confidence in self is also an important component of emotional maturity. Different llamas mature in this respect at very different rates. Some are ready to take on the world with aplomb before the age of three. Others just begin to show definite signs of developing confidence at four or five, and are not fully secure in their work (whatever that may be) until five or six.

Although regular outings from a tender age can acclimate many llamas to the stimuli of the real world, some young llamas retreat into their minds in terror and are actually sensitized, rather than desensitized. It is incumbent on the human handler to diagnose each llama's readiness for stressors and to then use that knowledge of the llama's individual emotional maturity level to introduce training tasks at the most advantageous time, even if that means waiting until the llama is five years old.

What risk is an acceptable risk?

For a human, acquisition of a messed-up knee or shoulder during youthful contests can certainly lead to life-long handicap; however, humans have many different nonphysical career choices, and also the social assurance that no one will auction them off for meat and their hide if they can't do one specific job. Not so with llamas. Despite the versatility of the species as a whole, an individual llama can only do a few things well -- and perhaps only one.

A human who is permanently injured also has social support for an equal opportunity at consuming food and need not constantly defend him or herself against others. Not so with llamas. An injured llama must be fed separately and may also require separate housing for protection.

The working llama who is injured or suffered an early breakdown has no other options. S/he may be able to find a retirement home, but the competition for prospective owners who are happy with gimpy llamowers is very stiff. That competition consists almost entirely of young, untrained, perfectly sound, surplus no-purpose llamas -- all of whom don't need the special accomodations or management practices that an injured llama does. If human injury is considered tragic despite the assurance of continued value to others, why are llamas expendable? Perhaps our species is not as advanced as we'd like to think.

There will always be some risk inherent in working llamas. However, it does not make sense to greatly compound that risk by working immature llamas. Because llamas mature at variable, unpredictable rates, the most sensible course of action would be to avoid situations in which the animal might suffer damage due to immaturity.

What about starting them out with "just a little"?

Our experience is that people keep adding "just a little" more -- whether weight, distance, or both -- until the llama is doing too much. Once the line has been crossed, it is too late, and chances are excellent that, because the increase was gradual, that the handler won't recognize that the llama is doing too much until it is doing MUCH too much.

In addition, we humans easily forget that llamas don't see and understand the world as we do. Carrying a bit of weight around the yard for ten minutes or down the road for a familiar half mile isn't the same thing as walking endlessly (in a young llama's mind, even a couple of miles is endlessly) on an unfamiliar trail -- even though we see the unfamiliar trail as "exciting" and "leading to a known [on paper] destination."

As tension increases, the risk of injury increases dramatically. This is true of all species, humans included. But young llamas are rarely able to express their tension. And many people, especially those new to llamas, don't pick up on any animal's tension until it becomes extreme.

Despite what it may seem to you, the human, wearing a pack saddle and adapting to weight bearing are the least difficult parts of learning to pack from the llama's perspective (these two components typically take an average of an hour and a week, respectively). What takes longest is learning that the human can be trusted and relied upon -- an ongoing lesson that can be easily destroyed in a split-second by human error . . . and impatience.

Summary of recommendations

Basic training

  • at birth, establish positive response to being touched; other exercises are unnecessary
  • from birth, proceed through basic manners and handling lessons at the llama's speed with continual reinforcement
  • undertake leading lessons only after llama accepts restraint
  • begin stationary tying and tethering lessons only after llama fully accepts restraint on lead


  • halter and unburdened performance classes -- after development of confidence and adequate attention span, usually two to three years of age (adjust to the individual llama)
  • packing classes -- after reaching three years if the llama is already comfortable with performance classes; otherwise delay until the llama's second season under saddle (four years or later)
  • driving classes -- four years if the llama has already performed well in ground driving classes; otherwise not until the llama's second season in harness (five years or later)


  • pack saddle training after body size is very close to adult -- around three years of age
  • light weights with bulk for training (up to 20 pounds; typically sleeping bags and jackets plus the weight of the pack saddle) -- not before three years in females and three-and-a-half years in males and geldings
  • moderate weight (40 pounds including the pack saddle and panniers) -- first season loads regardless of age, but not before three-and-a-half years
  • full weight -- no earlier than four years and second season


  • Basic ground driving and cart (two-wheel vehicle) familiarization after development of confidence and adequate attention span, usually three years of age, but adjusted to the individual llama
  • Work in harness only after full physical maturity at four years

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