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Kids and Llamas

by Marty McGee Bennett

As a person who has made the decision not to have children, I find myself a veritable expert on the issue of kids. I actually do work with kids and their llamas a fair bit. It is my experience that working with kids and llamas requires a special understanding of both.

This column is for kids and their handlers...whoops! I mean their parents or youth leaders. Llamas and kids seem to be a match made in heaven. Examined a bit closer there are a few issues that, when addressed, will make all the principals - llamas, handlers and adult supervisors - a lot happier.

Most kids love animals, and llamas are no exception. Most kids wouldn't deliberately hurt an animal, but they must be taught that animals have feelings and can be hurt or made uncomfortable. Working with animals is a perfect way to teach empathy, compassion, and respect for life other than humans. If we are not careful, children can watch our adult behavior and learn other lessons that were not on our agenda:

  • that being in a hurry is an excuse for all kinds of bad behavior,
  • that force is an appropriate way to get your way,
  • that winning is more important than being considerate and compassionate.

Young handlers can be naturally superb with animals, but they can also be self absorbed and inconsiderate. You can preach at kids all day, but a bit of role-playing can be much more meaningful. It is my belief that anyone, regardless of their age or animal handling experience, will benefit from wearing a llama halter on their head and finding out first hand what it is like to be lead around by the head.

Over the twelve plus years I have been teaching llama-handling clinics, I have changed the format and content of a two-day clinic a great deal. One exercise I started with - that I have never stopped using - is a role-playing exercise that involves wearing a halter. I have had hundreds of people tell me that this one exercise changed their life with their llama forever. Kids can particularly benefit from this exercise, so if you are a mom or a 4-H leader please give this a go with your young llama enthusiasts.

For this exercise you will need two people, one halter (preferably one with rings on the nose band), and one lead rope. From here on out "llama" means the human wearing the halter on his or her head. Have the "llama" put the halter on as shown in the illustration.(INSERT PICTURE-human llama)

Using a large adult llama halter, begin with the crown piece on its largest setting and the nose band adjustment (if there is one) somewhere in the middle. The crown piece is resting on the back of the head; the hands lightly fill out the noseband creating a llama nose. The whole process is easier if the "llama" inclines his head slightly forward. The halter does not have to fit the human head exactly. This is as much a balancing act as it is an exercise in halter fitting a human. Once the "llama" is wearing his halter, attach the lead rope and try the following exercises:

  1. . Let your "llama" hold up the weight of your arm. Most handlers (including adults), particularly smaller kids with bigger llamas, habitually let the llama hold up the weight of their arm. When you play the part of the llama, you will find that this is both irritating and uncomfortable. Llamas have even smaller heads and longer necks than humans which means that if holding up an arm with your human head is uncomfortable your llama will have an even harder time with it. It is important to remember that just like carrying binoculars or a camera around your neck, a humans arm gets heavier the longer you hold it up. For those of you that have had trouble getting your llama to stand quietly as you wait for your turn to enter a big class at a show... REMEMBER it is YOUR ARM, YOU carry it.

  2. . Lead your "llama" with your hand directly under the chin, very close to the "llamas" head. With your hand in this position you may feel like you have more control. In fact, in most leading circumstances you don't see exercise #4. As the "llama" you may find that this method of leading puts both the handler and his hand much too close. It is a violation of personal space. Most real llamas, particularly inexperienced ones, will have a hard time standing still or walking politely with a human so close. A too close handler coupled with unnecessary weight as illustrated in exercise #1 will cause most llamas to be fidgety on the lead. Fidgety llama= lighten up and back off.

  3. While playing the part of the handler, swing your arm around wildly, give a few tugs on the lead, jiggle your hand a bit in nervous anticipation of the big class, and then walk off briskly with no warning to your "llama" and drag your "llama" with you. By now your "llama" should be just about ready to anoint your head... and not with oil. Perhaps a bit of 'do unto your llama as you would have him do unto you' is an appropriate reminder right about now!

  4. The previous three exercises dealt with being kind and understanding as you lead your llama. This exercise and the next one are more about getting the most from your halter and lead. Kids in general are smaller than adults and usually are smaller than their llama charges. Therefore, it is important for them to have the mechanical advantage when leading a llama. In addition, having the mechanical advantage will allow a kid to cultivate a lighter hand with more subtlety. Leading with a longer lead offers more in the way of leverage than a shorter lead. In all but a few leading circumstances, it is better to hold the lead 3-4 feet from the end attached to the llama. I realize that some show classes require that the child hold the lead very close to the head. That is fine. Just remember that in training circumstances or when you really need more power a longer lead will give it to you.

    Humans and llamas alike act out when they don't understand what is being asked of them. If your llama doesn't understand, simply repeating yourself is not going to help. Frustrated llamas do things like jump around, lie down, and pull on the lead. Better to clear up the source of the frustration than to punish the acting out. There is another very powerful very simple technique for leading that will give a young handler power steering. If you buy a halter that includes rings on the noseband, you can attach a lightweight lead to this ring. (INSERT PIC) Don't take my word for it-try it on your "llama." A real llama follows his nose control the way the nose is pointed and you have control of the llama. If you attach your lead to the nose band ring, you can turn the nose with much less effort and what you want will be much more obvious to your llama. A llama that knows what you want is much more likely to do it than one who doesn't have a clue. Remember, with the additional power comes responsibility. Remember exercises 1-3 when you lead from the side.

  5. Getting a llama to move when, how, and where you tell him to is mostly about balance. Think about it this way: Keeping a llama from moving is about keeping him in balance- not letting him shift his weight in order to take the unwanted step. On the other hand, getting a llama to take a step means getting him to lose his balance in the desired direction. Getting a llama to follow a human is pretty simple. After all, llamas are natural followers. Watch a herd of llamas walking in from the field. They all follow each other. Quite often they stay in single file even if they don't need to. Getting your llama to stand still or move one foot at a time in response to a cue on the lead is much trickier than teaching him to follow you over dead fall in the woods. I remember watching a master packer class in which the hardest obstacle- the one that threw even the most experienced handler and trail llama- was one that required the handler to position the llama's feet on four plastic circles on the ground. The llamas sailed through and over even the most complicated obstacles but standing quietly with feet in place foiled them all.

While your human "llama" is wearing his halter have him stand still feet about shoulder width apart and close his eyes. Now ask your "llama" not to come forward. Handlers being ever so subtle-using only the lead- get your llama to come forward by causing him to lose his balance and take a step. Imagine that you are holding a sponge in your hand on the lead and that you are squeezing water out of the sponge. The tricky part of this exercise is the timing. When you squeeze the sponge your "llama" will begin to lean toward you, if you stop squeezing too soon the "llama" will just rock back and forth and never come forward. You must keep squeezing and gently shifting the "llamas" weight until he just can't help but come forward. I call this the rebalancing signal. It is much different than the standard tug and release signal we are usually taught. Master this technique and you will be able to reposition your real llama in the show ring so he stands correctly as well as encourages him up and over a scary obstacle with ease. Your llama will love that you aren't popping him under the chin with the lead rope or boring him to death with repeated tug and release signals that he doesn't understand. Remember: for every child having problems with a llama there is a llama having problems with a child!

No aspect of llamas is as magical as their gentle presence with children. I think it is a great responsibility to make sure that their trust is not misplaced. As the stewards of the llamas and the teachers of the children we must teach kindness respect and empathy for our llama friends. What better way to do this than teaching our young people exactly what it is like to be "their" llama?

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Marty McGee Bennett
18380 Pinehurst Road
Bend, OR 97701
office: (541) 318-5026 cell: (541) 788-2277 fax: (541) 322-6948
Training alpacas and llamas with respect and results since 1981

Copyright © 2008 by Marty McGee Bennett

The icons/graphics and text in the articles written by Marty McGee Bennett may not be reproduced in any way without express written permission from Marty.

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