By Melinda Van Bossuyt
There were plenty of goodies within easy reach as we hiked along. Much of the vegetation was big healthy rhododendron which beckoned to llama lips. We were careful and watchful of our four-legged hiking companions. A big enough bite of those shiny leaves could make a llama very sick and/or dead. On this day, no one even tried for a nibble. We were out with two young fellows on their very first real hike carrying packs. They were too wide-eyed and worried about the sound of the rushing creek, unseen from the trail, to think about eating. Their experienced father, Magma, led the way. Solid and matter-of-fact, Magma's training, experience, and trust in his humans were evident. He did not attempt to eat anything along the way. What a good example for his boys!
Llamas spend a lot of their time grazing, browsing, or just eating the hay brought to them in the barn. When hiking, it is annoying to have your llamas trying to grab at every passing bush or clump of grass. Not only does it slow you down and disrupt a string of llamas, it also can be dangerous when the vegetation is toxic. How can llamas be kept from munching along the way?
There are three categories of things you can do to deal with the munching problem: training, physical restraint, and planned eating.
It seems obvious that if llamas are taught from an early age that it is not okay to eat while walking on a lead, they will be less likely to expect to eat while hiking as adult pack llamas. It is tempting and easy to let a llama take a casual nibble at tasty morsels during a casual walk down the driveway. But that can confuse a llama later when his head is yanked away from an especially rich looking clump of grass during a more serious, destination oriented hike on another day. If you want to feed your llama by taking him to graze while on lead, it is important to make a clear distinction for the llama about when it is the right time to eat. Perhaps the indicators might include going directly to a good area for grazing, stopping at the spot, letting out more lead, and issuing a consistent voice command for that activity. I know some folks who do this very thing. They routinely take their pack llamas on lead for an hour or so of grazing before saddling up in the morning, again at a lunch stop, and once more after unsaddling for the day.
When we were hiking through the rhododendron, I would have been much more concerned if our llamas had been tied together in a string. The temptation of an individual llama in the string to reach for a bite of greenery cannot be controlled. In our situation, because we were training youngsters, each llama was being individually led.
A person can have a lot of control over the llama by utilizing the lead to best advantage. Shorten up on the lead when walking on trails with toxic plants. Use two hands on the lead. One hand is back toward the end of the rope holding the folded excess lead. The other hand is placed up closer to the clip and adjusts up and down the rope depending on the amount of control desired.
In a situation where there aren't enough handlers and llamas must be strung, a different kind of physical restraint is needed. Cover the llama's muzzle with a barrier that prevents eating. We have used bandanas for this purpose. The cloth must be fastened to the halter at both top and bottom. Nowadays we carry spit masks sold by Quality Llama Products. These are made of stiff nylon mesh and have adjustable clips on the sides. The stiffness of the nylon keeps the fabric from pressing against the nose. The barrier keeps the llama from being able to eat. We routinely put one on Goddard who did not learn the "don't eat while hiking" lesson. We can't help laughing at him when he forgets about the mask and tries to grab a bite anyway.
The temptation to munch on the move is lessened when the llama is not hungry. Planned eating involves making sure your llama has a chance to fill his belly before the hike. We put hay in the trailer so that the llamas can fill up on the road. Because llamas are unlikely to stand and eat while the trailer is moving, we give them extra time in the trailer at the trailhead before saddling so they can eat. They are far more apt to try eating on the trail if they have not been fed. If we are camped out with the llamas, we make sure in the morning that they have time to graze before we saddle up. When we stop for lunch on the trail, we try to find a place where there is grass for the llamas. We take their loads off but leave the saddles on. After lunch they have more energy to get us to the next camp. On our recent day hike with the young llamas in training, we knew that our lunch spot would have nothing the llamas could eat. We took along some pellets and chopped processed hay for their lunch.
It is a good idea to spend some time learning to identify the toxic plants you are likely to encounter on the trail. Be prepared in case one of your llamas does get their lips on something bad. Carry along activated charcoal and learn how to administer it, just in case.
Copyright 2005 Melinda Van Bossuyt
Spring Creek Llama Ranch