LEVELS OF TRAINING FOR PACK LLAMAS
and What to Expect
by Melinda Lee-Van Bossuyt
On our farm, we classify llamas by experience level for packing using the following terms.
- Untrained - Llama is only halter and lead trained. Has learned to tie out on picket pin.
- Trained - Llama has learned to take the saddle and has participated in at least one overnight pack trip carrying only 10 percent or less of their body weight.* This training is done after the llama has turned two years old and exhibits a certain level of physical and social maturity.
- Experienced - Llama has participated in at least two seasons of packing and is at least 3 1/2 years old. Llamas carry up to 15 percent of their body weight as a three year old.*
- Seasoned - Llama has packed successfully for at least three seasons and is at least 4 1/2 years old. Carries about 25 percent of his body weight.* Must demonstrate maturity, good judgment, and complete trust and respect for human handler. Must be 100% dependable on the trail.
* The right load for any llama also depends on the condition of animal, whether or not the llama is fat or fit, distance to be covered, and trail conditions. Disregarding the circumstances and overloading a llama can cause irreparable harm to the animal. The llama very often will continue hiking and carrying a too heavy load without complaint. That is their nature.
Time and again my husband, Dave, and I hear of people who have purchased a couple of young llamas and have given up packing them because "they aren't any good for it" They complain that the llamas were sold to them as trained and yet don't perform. Why does this happen? What has gone wrong?
The llamas are too young. Two and even three year old llamas cannot be expected to perform like seasoned pack llamas. It takes maturity and experience for this to happen. Full maturity does not come until at least age four. If a couple of two year old llamas are taken out together, there is no telling what they will do. Even our wonderful old pack stud, Ebenezer, had his moments as a two year old. He once laid down in the trail and wouldn't budge. He scarcely was carrying anything, just some foil and a couple of jackets. We pulled off his panniers and saddle, dragged him to the side of the trail, and tied him to a little tree. We took the other llamas and left him behind. About 10 minutes later we returned. He was more than ready to go with us. Llamas want to be with other llamas. Being left behind was a terrible punishment. He never laid down in the trail again.
Another good example of the terrible twos in llamas is a fellow we had been working with since birth. He was doing pretty well hiking our training trails here at home. Over the winter, just before his second birthday, I decided to take him for a walk. He was a nut case. He jumped around and crowded me from behind. This went on for the next couple of months. Just six months later, he went on his first training pack trip. He behaved as expected and performed most excellently for his first outing.
Youngsters are taken out hiking without an older, experienced llama as a mentor. We always train our youngsters with one of our mature packers. The kids pay attention to what the old guys are doing. When we teach the two year old to take the saddle, we first put a saddle on our experienced llama. I recommend that people purchase at least one experienced pack llama if they are going to train a youngster. A well-trained, experienced packer can cost a lot more money. It takes years of training and work to get an llama to that point. The new owner can go on a successful pack trip immediately with an experienced pack llama.
New pack llama owners should also expect the seller to teach them how to handle, how to groom, how to saddle, and how to load the pack llama. This is the same as receiving instruction on how to operate the new car before driving it off the lot. Beware of a seller who would simply send the new owner home with the llama without the owner's manual.
Youngsters are expected to carry too much weight or their saddle does not fit correctly. Two and three year olds should not be expected to carry as much as an adult. This is because they are still growing. Too much weight can damage growing bones. One way to figure out how much to put on a young llama is by percent of body weight. Two year olds may be able to carry up to 10 percent of their body weight. This total weight needs to include the saddle and panniers. If the two year old llama weighs 250 pounds, he should be carrying no more than 20-25 pounds. This is just enough for the llama to know that he has something on his back. If the saddle weighs 10 pounds and the panniers weigh 2 pounds, that means that the llama will carry only a maximum of 13 pounds of stuff for you. As for saddle fit, the pack llama owner should ask for help if they don't know. There are good books and articles on this subject.
The llama isn't suited to be a pack llama. Too often unknowledgable breeders sell their non-breeding quality males as "packers." Not every llama is made for this kind of work. Llamas with short, crooked legs, heavy neck and leg wool, or a ragged, non-fluid movement should not be asked to pack.
Finally, if a youngster gives you some trouble, don't give up on him. Two year olds are like young teenagers; they are sometimes simply out of it. They can be unpredictable. They go through phases. Have faith, love them anyway, and let them grow up.
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