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Showing Llamas

Ranger Dusty and Gwen Ingram -- Versatility Champions, 1994 WILA Show
(photo courtesy of WILA)

Llama shows may be organized, sanctioned and give points toward cumulative (competitive) awards, or they may be loose events put on by a local llama club at a fair or in a park. There is a growing movement toward noncompetitive certifications, some of which are an honor to attain, and some of which are inflated or even meaningless "fronts" to improve sales. Not all llamas or all people are cut out for showing, of course, but many do find some level or type that they enjoy.

For many, many years, the Alpaca and Llama Show Association (ALSA) was the ONLY sanctioning body for competitive showing. As can be expected, the power potential from having such a monopoly went to a few peoples' heads. As a result, the ILR-SD (International Lama Registry Show Division) was born in 2009. As was anticipated, history repeated itself, and the politics of the ILR-SD are similar with different faces and details. Several local and regional organizations offer noncompetitive certification trials of various types.

Most shows offer halter classes, popular with breeders and "the powers that be" within the show association, and performance classes, the favorite of everyone who enjoys "doing things" with their llamas -- and the spectators (much to the extreme consternation of the big breeders who want to sell their [untrained] llamas and don't get any attention that way).

Games, "fun" races (such as egg-and-spoon), and costume classes may also be offered at shows. Trendy llama breeders get very serious about get-of-sire and produce-of-dam classes, in which the multiple progeny entries are compared for similarity to each other. Occasionally ground driving, pack string, or llama fiber classes are offered.

Versatility Champion may be awarded to the llama who accumulates the most points in performance and halter combined.

Is it fun?

It can be. We were showing llamas from the very beginning -- before the show association even existed -- and in the old days, before the big money breeders were interested in turning showing into a venue for rewarding their kind of llamas, it was a LOT of fun.

For the first three years, it was a good thing our goal to have fun with the llamas, because ribbons were few, far between, and almost never blue. As our skills and our llamas' skills improved, and a lot of red, blue, and purple ribbons ended up hanging on our stalls by the end of a showing weekend.

In recent years, however, even the performance classes became both frustrating and boring for all of us. That wasn't because we weren't winning -- in fact, we WERE consistently winning. But the courses have been simplified and the rules have changed so that the handler's quirks are judged as much or more than the llama's actual performance. Activities in the performance classes have become highly artificial, such as requiring a llama to jump over a line on the ground (something you do NOT want to teach a driving llama!) or, conversely, requiring a small llama to step (not jump) over barriers in the pack class that are physically too high for him or her (something that would in fact never be required of a pack llama).

Certified judges certainly reward the woolly llama breeders, but they also "judge" the performance classes -- and in their ignorance, it is common to see turnouts winning the driving class based on looks and llamas winning pack class with packs that aren't even put on humanely, let alone correctly. And, as probably should have been expected for people who speak up when animals are being mistreated or allowed to misbehave, we became targets of some rather petty and juvenile behavior and more than one nasty, groundless rumor. You can imagine that all this took the fun out of showing in a hurry.

We tried hard not to lose sight of having fun with our llamas and doing what was our collective best, no matter what the competitive outcome or the judges' decisions. The increasing number of bad apples among judges and competitors (and organizational management) made it tougher, but we did have good times with our llamas for many years.

Ranger Dusty (who showed since 1988) told Gwen in the summer of 2001 he'd definitely had it with both the highly artificial and the not even remotely challenging show activities. Gwen promptly honored his wishes, that day, right in the middle of the class. After that, we also decided to take the opportunity to let Nubin Sydney (who started showing in 1989 and was starting to lose interest) off the hook and take an indefinite leave from showing ourselves.

We wish that showing was what it used to be -- because it had been so much fun -- but as in the dog and horse world, showing is run by those with much more money and time and political savvy than real-world people like us. Without adequate input, the show venue is, as in other species, rewarding both conformation and behavior that no serious user can tolerate. If true performance events finally begin to evolve for llamas -- such as combined driving weekends, off-lead dressage and obstacle activities, and realistic tests of pack llama stamina -- you can bet we'll be there in a heartbeat!


How did we do?

Even at the very beginning, we never put a lot of stock in halter class outcome because the criteria is primarily based on aesthetics and is also slanted towards wool production (largely quantity, rarely quality), but we still entered to send the show associations and the public a message that classic llamas are worthy of evaluation in their own right. Of course, they didn't get the message, but a tremendous number of onlookers sure noticed. When something about our llamas' "style" was temporarily "in," we did OK:

  • Ranger Dusty -- Grand Champion Light Wool Male (4); Reserve Champion Light (or Light/Medium) Wool Male (4)
  • Nubin Sydney -- Grand Champion Gelding (13); Reserve Champion Gelding (6)
    [note: Sydney has a serious conformational defect -- you can see from his high number of awards that the judges and the show association that "educated" them are sadly ignorant of function and even basic soundness!]
  • Hyder Llamas Sahalie -- Grand Champion Light (or Light/Medium) Wool Female (4); Reserve Champion Light Wool Female (1)
    [note: despite Sahalie's high halter class placings, she was the first female we retired from breeding -- and we did that for conformational reasons!]
  • Spokane River Kokanee -- Grand Champion Light Wool Female (1); Reserve Champion Light (or Light/Medium) Wool Female (2)
  • Snake River Dallys -- Grand Champion Light (or Light/Medium) Wool Female (4); Reserve Champion Light Wool Female (2); Reserve Overall Best Female of Show (1)
  • Lost Creek Ranger Olallie -- Grand Champion Light/Medium Wool Female (1); Reserve Champion Light Wool Female (2)
  • During 1995, our females went to four shows and came home with four Grands and three Reserves at halter. Even though we knew it was for the wrong reasons, we had to admit that wasn't such a bad feeling.

    Performance classes -- where good training and handling are an essential component -- are what we really went to shows for. Not surprisingly, we got pretty good at playing the rest of the games, such as finding out which judges have peculiar requirements because they have no practical field experience, and which are the few judges who are simply so incompetent (or -- in one case -- vindicitve) that they weren't worth our time, money, and mental health.

    Ranger Dusty was named Performance Grand Champion at 23 shows and Reserve Performance Champion at another 9. He was Grand or Reserve Performance Champion at every show he attended that offered the awards except two since 1991. Nubin Sydney was right on his heels: Performance Grand Champion at 8 shows (well, guess who edged out Dusty), and Reserve Performance Champion at 12 more. Together, Dusty and Syd were named both the Grand AND Reserve Performance Champions in every show they attended in 1995, 1996, and 2000.

    Cumulative awards seemed like a great way to achieve lasting, concrete recognition ... until we found out that the written rules aren't much like the unwritten ones (keep reading). Initially, our llamas did well:

    Ranger Dusty -- ALSA Champion, Performance Champion, and Supreme Champion

    Nubin Sydney -- ALSA Champion, Halter Champion, Performance Champion, Grand Champion, and Elite Champion

    Snake River Dallys -- ALSA Halter Champion

    JJ Patches -- ALSA Champion


    Apollo One with Jim Logan (left) and
    Ranger Dusty with Gwen Ingram (right)

    (photo by Diana Pyle)

    Ranger Dusty and Apollo One were ALSA's first Supreme Champions, earned at the same show (WILA 1993). Both were the only Supreme Champions who earned their titles under the original, tougher criteria, which demanded greater versatility at the most advanced levels.


    Is it expensive like showing horses and dogs?

    Yup, actually it's worse than horses. It used to be that you could show one or two good llamas on a shoestring budget, particularly if you could include a state fair or two (with modest premiums) in each year's show schedule. However, with the increased emphasis on qualifying for regionals and nationals (which have very high entry fees), the advent of halter-oriented jackpot shows, and "double" shows (you are required to pay twice for each class in return for getting double the points -- if you earn any at all), it's not so easy any more.

    A huge difference is that the horse world has schooling shows, which can be done less expensively than the "main" circuits. The llama folk are still stuck in a long-dead world of inflated prices. They do it fancy (spendy!) or not at all. So you have to jump right in with the big farms scrapping amongst themselves for what they consider recognition (they'll like you fine if you might buy, and will "protect" you if you do purchase from them, but if showing is all you want to do, good luck with that!)

    For awhile, there were more and more llama shows are springing up, meaning more shows within reasonable travelling distance of many people. More shows in-state also means that, for some people, there's no cost for veterinary health certificates and other tests; for some states, laws pertaining to health requirements have also been altered specifically to waive some tests for show llamas. But with the total saturation of the llama market, the number of shows has declined due to waning participation.

    So far, there are few professional handlers showing other peoples' llamas in performance classes (usually the llama professionals train and show their own "performance" animals before selling them to start over),. However, professional handlers are common in the halter ring. Being able to show your own animal is much more affordable and certainly far more rewarding ... as long as you take some time to learn what you will be doing, prepare your animals well, and enter your beginning llamas in the novice classes where the activities are supposed to be structured to take their inexperience into account.

    The so-called regional and national championship shows are very expensive, both in outright costs and in the "hidden" costs of getting animals qualified to enter, not to mention all that time off from work -- unless a person doesn't have to work a set schedule, or doesn't even work at all. As in other walks of life, money talks. And because of the expense, the best llamas don't attend. On the other hand, the placings aren't well-publicized and are soon "old news," so it's obvious why national shows aren't really "the best of the best" in the llama world.


    Is it political like showing horses and dogs?

    ABSOLUTELY. We started out being very naive and have received an incredible lesson in how dirty politics operate. The bad politics are primarily at the organizational level, although some individuals (yes, including "certified" judges) do their best to make their personal contribution. The cumulative award system (keep reading for a very tiny peek into that) and the so-called national show are probably the biggest artificial constructs that, despite appearances, are intended to maintain the status quo (and do it quite well).

    At the time Dusty earned his Supreme Champion, this was very exciting for us. We did not realize the political faux paus we'd committed (continuing to show a classic llama instead of quickly dumping him and buying new semi-woolly llamas every couple of years from the "in" cria mills), nor did we understand that instead of true recognition, there would be severe consequences to us -- the deliberately fabricated rumors designed to oust us and our llamas from showing, despite their illogical premises, have caused incredible hurt to us and irreversible damage to our efforts to educate people about the humane training and treatment of llamas. Those rumors were started at the very show at which Dusty and Gwen were presented with their Supreme Champion award.

    Bad enough? Nope, ALSA no longer recognizes the winners of the Supreme Champion award in their yearly publications, despite the requirements to do so in their own bylaws, and they both downplay the Supreme Champion award and bury those that did achieve it deep in their webpages where few will ever see them. And the rules have been revised such that should we ever fail to renew our ALSA membership, Dusty's Supreme Champion award, all his Recognitions of Merit, and all of his lifetime points will be permanently wiped from ALSA's records. Definitely not recognition, nor the concrete, lasting achievement we were led to believe.

    But that wasn't all. When Sydney was one point away from earning a Supreme Champion title himself, the award system was overhauled. The Supreme Champion was replaced with the Elite Champion, which places great emphasis on halter achievements (read "fashion") and, for "breeding" (intact) llamas, winning entries in progeny classes (get-of-sire and produce-of-dam) are also required. Halter Champion titles could be earned in a single year; the supposed counterpart for recognizing training -- Performance Champion titles -- would take several, if not many, years. And the common practice of combining light wool halter entries with the so-called medium wool entries and the progeny classes' all-types-together structure, the "powers-that-be" finally succeeded in making the top awards in the cumulative award system work the way they intended it to in the first place: Llamas would have to be trendy and woolly to be officially recognized as superior; the exceptionally well-trained and the out-of-fashion need not apply.

    Sydney's Elite Champion title is particularly farcical after you've had a chance to personally see him struggle up any kind of moderate hill thanks to his clearly defective lumbosacral joint (never mentioned and quite possibly never even seen by the trend-following, silhoutte-loving halter judges). Ranger Dusty is clearly the superior working animal, but of course he, as an intact male classic llama, has no hope of placing well in halter and progeny classes.

    To add insult to injury, a little political backlash from Gwen's short and painful tenure as Performance Committee Chair resulted in "uneven placement of testicles" being officially changed from a blemish to a major fault -- and Dusty (who typically has "one slung slightly low") was thereafter handily prevented from any possibility of achieving any recognition under the new award system, even if we had found enough favorably-educated judges to overcome the very long odds against a classic llama winning halter grands despite being forced to compete against woolly and crossbred woolly llamas by woolly llama standards. Are we bitter? Darn right. Think we're making it up? We couldn't make up the stuff that has been done to us if we'd tried. Are we paranoid, mistakenly taking personal offense at well-thought-out rules? Not likely when the people who wrote, proposed, and pushed the rules through contacted us for the express purpose of rubbing it in afterwards.

    The next insults came years later when we were talked into returning to showing under the guise of developing and supporting a Classic llama division. We won't go into details; suffice it to say that we didn't find it cost-effective OR a positive experience OR useful for our working llamas!


    So are we saying that showing llamas isn't worth it?

    No. For some, it will be worth it, at least for a while. If you can just enjoy the time with your llama and if you and your llama find that showing enhances your relationship, by all means, go for it! Just make sure you also have other things to do with your llama in case the politics catch up with you and you find one day that you can't put a happy face on everything no matter what. It's not fair to the llamas, especially the good ones, to have an intensely interesting life filled with attention and praise and admiration and then suddenly be dumped like yesterday's coffee grounds.

    Forewarned is forearmed. We would have lasted much longer if we'd known how things really worked. If you do show, we wish you the best of luck at having fun!

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