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Considerations for Driving Llamas

in the Showring:

Pleasure Driving Class

(unpublished article by Gwen Ingram)


Driving training is a difficult task. Only in off-lead work does the llama have as much responsibility to the mutual endeavor. Responsibility requires mental stability, self-restraint and reliability on the part of the llama. The human partner needs to be clear in initial instruction and subsequent activities, and also to be an understanding but firm coach when the llama is having difficulties remaining on task. One cannot truly control a driven llama, only make suggestions. Driving is not for all llamas, nor is driving training for all people.

Very little can top the enjoyment of pleasure driving down a quiet lane or in a picturesque park -- for both llama and driver. But actual pleasure driving is very demanding on a llama. Even a well-structured llama can be hurt by inappropriate driving practices or equipment. Fortunately, proper driving skills and the knowledge necessary to preserve a properly structured llama's pathology are not difficult to learn, and so nearly anyone can enjoy llama driving.

The showring presents additional, different demands on the driving llama. To be fair, the driver needs to understand the llama's perspective:

  • To an equine, kept in a stall or small paddock day in and day out, a stiff workout in an enclosed arena is a welcome chance to stretch out and do something different. To a llama, kept at pasture, there is no benefit in continuous circling.
  • The concept of "circling" is not beyond a llama's grasp, but when the "arenas" vary in size, shape, and adjacent distractions -- such as piled obstacles for other classes -- the concept is difficult to establish.
  • Most llama driving rings, laid out by nondrivers, are too small. Small circles and sharp turns, necessary in small spaces, place significant lateral stress on joints.
  • A llama has a very limited area of depth perception accompanied by a wide field of vision. A small and crowded arena -- sometimes with obstacles lining the edges -- looks like a very chaotic and dangerous place.
  • Driving surface makes a tremendous difference in the amount of effort required for draft. Once the driver tries pulling a cart him or herself over various surfaces, it becomes easy to see why fine pleasure driving llamas prefer packed dirt or asphalt and struggle on softer grass, gravel, and loose dirt.

To present a pleasure driving llama well, you must prepare him or her for the class itself. Practicing in empty parking lots provides a similar atmosphere to explain what is required. A pair of winkers aids some llamas by shutting out much of the visual confusion in the ring and simultaneously providing an obvious direction to take. Winkers also help llamas who are concerned about being followed.

PR training helps a driving llama to ignore potential distractions. Techniques that associate being in harness with calmness, development of excellent "brakes," and learning to stand "ground tied" (for harnessing in busy showbarns, for mounting and dismounting, and for inspection in the showring) are basic safety practices.

Finally, to counteract physical stress, practice sessions that involve ringwork should be followed by an equal amount of work on a straightaway. Likewise, practice sessions and pleasure drives should contain a significant amount of work -- up to half -- at the canter and gallop. Pleasure driving classes rarely provide such an opportunity, and so locating a suitable area for a "warmdown" run afterward is very wise.

A significant, artificial handicap is imposed on the llama and driver in the showring. There are only three means to communicate with the driven llama: Voice, reins, and the whip. Voice commands, encouraged in equine driving and a necessary compliment to the reins, are discouraged in the llama showring, thanks to association rules written by nondrivers. Any visible use of the whip -- which provides additional cues through the locations it touches and also a means to regain wandering attention (albeit difficult through all that wool) -- risks penalty from judges, who in our current show association are also mostly nondrivers.

If the driver chooses to acquiese to these artificial conventions, the driving llama is left with the communication provided by the reins -- very much inadequate unless the llama is confident enough to maintain "contact." If the driver chooses to place safety and the llama's needs first, then it must also be accepted that many blue ribbons will be awarded to other turnouts instead.

An unavoidable learning curve spans several shows while a llama adjusts to this new (and seemingly ridiculous) environment for driving. Careful preparation and understanding speeds the transition greatly and helps to produce a calm, safe, and relaxed driving llama in the showring. Giving up before working through this phase or, worse still, attempting to train the llama to drive in the showring before actually teaching the llama to drive -- on roads and trails -- is a recipe for failure and a disservice to the reputation of the athletic, capable driving llama.

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