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Conformation, Utility, and Llamas
What makes a good pack llama? Ask 10 llama
packers and you'll probably get 10 different answers. Most will
probably agree that personality and willingness to work are important
factors, but is there a relationship between conformation and
the job of carrying heavy loads for miles over rugged terrain?
Just what is good conformation in a llama? Breeders are quick
to point out animals having good versus those having bad conformation
and animals that are pet or show animals versus those considered
"pack quality," yet who is deciding what the standards
are and, more importantly, just what is the basis for these standards?
Most breeders advertise that they are "breeding for good
conformation," but does this mean more than an absence of
gross physical abnormalities coupled with the currently accepted
"look" governed primarily by wool distribution? I find
difficulty in avoiding the perception that many breeders are
viewing the conformation of their animals from a "stuffed
toy" perspective-that is, judging the outline and perhaps
some visible structural features rather than judging the entire
actual structure alone.
WHAT IS CONFORMATION?
The term conformation is normally used in
reference to the overall physical make-up of an animal or how
its body parts fit together. We can define "ideal"
types or standards as we choose and can base them on one or more
parameters. The more parameters, the less variation among animals
within any particular "type". The most basic aspect
of a standard for any animal whether llama, horse, cow or chicken
should start from a purely mechanical standpoint with soundness
or structural integrity, involving all structural aspects of
the skeletal and muscular systems and how they relate to overall
health, growth and normal motion and activities (please refer
to "Form, Function, Conformation and Soundness," by
Murray Fowler, Llamas Magazine, Nov/Dec 1986). Any animal breeder
should take the responsibility to clearly understand the physiological
principles regarding structure and action to avoid the creation
of unhealthy and unsound animals. Another component of conformation
is functional integrity-how an animal's conformation is suited
to meeting human needs such as food, work and recreation or sport.
Size and growth rate are important factors to consider when breeding
an animal for food; strength and endurance are obviously necessary
for a work animal; specialized athletic body types are necessary
for sport. The final aspect involved in conformational standards
involves the satisfaction of our aesthetic tastes. This could
involve any aspect of the shape and balance of body type, including
important structural elements, as well as more trivial aspects
such as facial features or shape of ears.
When judging an animal's conformation, the
obvious place to begin is by determining if any gross physical
abnormalities exist that undermine structural integrity with
the standards determined by what is normal for the species. Historically,
people have next considered functional integrity. As an example,
many breeds of horses have been developed, each having varying
combinations of strength, agility, and physical and mental stamina
as well as aesthetics in a body type suited to meet specific
work or athletic functions. Racing thoroughbreds, draft horses,
and quarterhorses all have their own own particular type of "good
conformation". The important point to remember is that suitability
for one particular function (determined by excellence in performance)
plays a big part in determining the conformation of horses and
other species of domestic livestock.
A strong athletic body type in performance
animals is often aesthetically pleasing in its own right, but
it MUST be remembered that it is quite easy to lose aspects of
structural, physiological and even reproductive integrity when
breeding for specific traits and especially for extremes in these
visible rather than performance-proven traits. Breeding to satisfy
aesthetic tastes even when those tastes are for a performance-type
body appearance can compromise structural and functional elements.
For example, love of a big, muscular look in quarterhorses has
led to a non-working sub-breed with a body too big for the feet,
resulting in foot problems. Similar situations can be avoided
when excellence in performance is coupled with soundness and
good health to become the key factors in choosing performance
DIFFICULTIES IN ASSESSING CONFORMATION
The main problem is that no clear definition
of even a single proper conformational standard seems to exist
within the llama community. Definitions exist such as: conformation
-the appropriate arrangement of body parts into the whole animal
and overall appearance -the llama should be well proportioned,
balanced and symmetrical. These are extremely vague and contain
no specific information regarding even a single aspect of conformation.
The second in particular can allow familiar notions of balance
and symmetry (of horses and sheep, for instance) to unconsciously
perpetuate unllama-like traits (short necks, long backs, equine-like
gaits, and more). The only specific information available addresses
the extreme negative traits such as sickle hocks or gopher ears.
Assessing conformation solely from a visual perspective of balance
and symmetry is ALWAYS subjective and can easily leads to problems.
Llamas (which are basically no more than woolly guanacoes) initially
captivated my attention because their particular lack of familiar
symmetrical body proportions distinguishes them from other domestic
livestock. Although we don't want to breed for a Dr. Seuss type
of caricature, neither should we breed out the unique qualities
and have them all looking like sheep (for instance) just because
sheep look more "normal" to us.
Another faulty approach is exemplified by
a question often asked when assessing llamas, namely, "How
much does he weigh?" This question is totally irrelevant
when assessing conformation and only significant when referring
to animals bred for human consumption. Many people seem impressed
when an answer of 400 lbs or more is given, illustrating the
quite naive conjecture that the more a llama weighs the more
he will be able to carry. Just how much of his weight is fat?
(refer to "Do You Have A Pudgy Packer?" by Gwen Ingram,
The Backcountry Llama, August 1989). Extremes in size may be
important if one were to breed for "draft" llamas,
but weight is only one factor that MUST be combined with the
measurements of many structural parameters when assessing any
relationship between size and suitability for such a specialized
Wool can present problems because it often
hides or masks a llama's true conformation. An animal with fluffy
wool can appear larger than one whose wool rests closer to the
body, and smooth-haired legs appear finer-boned. Presence or
absence of guard hair can alter the appearance of the backline.
Standards set by sound physiological principles as determined
by performance should differentiate good and bad conformation,
and not apparent balance as affected by wool. These assessment
difficulties exist even with short wooled llamas. Imagine the
difficulties presented when attempting to visually evaluate a
non-performing heavily wooled llama.
Prejudices favoring an individual animal can
often lead to inaccurate assessment of conformation as well as
performance. Many undeserved attributes are bestowed by proud
owners on the basis of famous relatives alone whether or not
the individual has proven to have those qualities. Affection
towards certain animals can often cloud judgement by causing
the rationalizing and even overlooking of shortcomings.
The main problem, lack of clarity in defining
our needs and therfore our standards, provides a large area of
uncharted territory regarding both structural as well as functional
integrity. Is a short back better than a long back? How does
the "ring" of muscles (refer to "Principles of
Conformation Analysis" by Deb Bennett, PhD, Fleet Street
Pub. Corp., 1988) function in llamas during strenuous activities
such as traveling uphill and jumping obstacles and pulling a
cart? Other aspects requiring consideration are relative leg
length, neck length, chest width, angle of pasterns, bone size,
hip and shoulder placement, and proportional size of feet. How
a llama moves, walks and runs is the ultimate test as to how
these factors are all functioning as a unit, reemphasising the
need for more careful analysis of the relationship between performance
ARE WE USING UTILITY TO DEFINE "GOOD"
After addressing some problems of accurate
conformation assessment in llamas, we still don't know how optimum
conformation will differ for a high-performance pack llama versus
a high-performance cart llama. A horse bred to excel at racing
short distances and starting quickly differs significantly in
build from a horse bred to race longer distances. A horse bred
to race while pulling a cart differs from one bred to race while
carrying a rider. This doesn't even take into consideration the
differences in horses bred to excel using different gaits as
well as disciplines other than racing. It seems foolish to assume
that there is one ideal llama conformation which allows a llama
to truly excel at varied disciplines.
Llamas are not yet being selectively bred
(at least by most) for specific uses. We all know that llamas
can be brushed and/or shorn for their wool, be jogging and hiking
companions, pull carts, and-most importantly to me-serve as pack
animals. It is disconcerting, however, that very little concrete
information is available to assess relationships between conformation
and the various uses. One reason for this could be that the majority
of llamas that exist in this country are not really being used
much for any purpose other than making more llamas. Another is
that since most owners and breeders aren't more than casual users,
there just isn't a demand for a high performance body type-almost
any llama except the extremely woolly and small animals can serve
with some degree of adequacy in average working situations. It
is basic economic sense that the health and viability of the
industry would be enhanced if possible uses were more fully realized
and promoted. Accompanying conformational standards should evolve
to insure that soundness is maintained in spite of these uses.
The motion towards distinct sub-types or "breeds"
of llamas is evident in North American llama breeding, yet all
of these "breed" distinctions are currently based solely
on qualities associated with wool. The fact that halter class
entries are defined by wool length illustrates that, aside from
trendy, non-functional features such as short necks and banana
ears, differences in body "type" (not to be confused
with soundness) is either considered relatively unimportant or
is perhaps to most people largely unassessable when determining
quality. An important point to remember is that wool (length,
color, quality, placement and distribution) has absolutely nothing
whatsoever to do with the term conformation. By definition, conformation
is a term used to describe the body itself.
A further indication that the current notions
of "good conformation" are not determined by structural
and functional principles is that the classification of "pack
quality" is given almost indiscriminantly to most short-wooled
animals regardless of body type and without proven working ability,
much less excellence. I am often angered and less often amused
by what seems to be only an attempt to give a useful, saleable
label to short-wooled animals (which many breeders obviously
consider to be inferior) and the attitude that just any short-wooled
llama will do as a packer for everyone.
It is our personal experience that some llamas
CAN outperform others even when conditioning and training are
equal. Training, experience and genetic predisposition all play
a part in determining character, and there are many factors that
determine attitude towards work. We am convinced, however, that
a body well suited for a particular kind of work can definitely
have a better effect on willingness and mental attitude than
can a physique less suited to performing in the same situation.
Hopefully someday, when asked the all-too-familiar
question, "Just what are llamas good for anyway?",
we'll be able to confidently elaborate on the many uses of llamas
and their respective suitable conformations which allow them
to excel at such uses without sacrificing soundness or structural
integrity. Only then will we successfully convey the impression
that llama breeding is a healthy industry whose fascination is
directed toward more than merely decorative "stuffed toys".
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