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for young llamas to begin
basic training, showing, packing
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.
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
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
- 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
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
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
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]
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
- 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
- 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
- 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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