Teaching to Pack with Llamas
By Marty McGee Bennett
Llamas are the perfect pack animal particularly if you like to walk rather than ride. They are smaller, easier on the environment and easier to take care of while out in the wilderness. Even a single llama can carry a lot of creature comforts for the trail. Llamas also make interesting and observant hiking companions. Conventional "llama" wisdom has it that llamas are also easy to train to carry a pack and I agree, with a bit of a caveat. Many hundreds of llamas are chronically and needlessly difficult to saddle because they were never taught to accept a pack. There are few things more frustrating than trying to put a pack on a llama that is kicking, kushing or wrapping himself around a tree.
Training a pack llama is not as simple as just tying him up and attaching a pack to him. Look at this event from your llama's point of view. The "puma/pack" jumps on, grabs him around the middle and won't let go for nothing. There are no natural occurrences in your llama's life that will have prepared him for the sights, sounds or feelings inherent in wearing a pack. Most llamas are going to panic if you simply pop one on. The event will be seared into his brain; the pack becomes an enemy to be avoided. Perhaps in time your llama will realizes that the pack isn't going to eat him, by then he has developed avoidance habits that will be annoying and time consuming.
The process of teaching a llama to ACCEPT a pack is quite different than tying one on but surprisingly, it doesn't take much more time or effort. The small amount of extra time involved in the beginning comes back to you a hundred fold each time your llama stands quietly for saddling.
Your pack candidate should be easy to halter, and lead and not terribly frightened about having his legs touched. Always keep in mind that YOU know that the pack or anything else you put on his back will not kill him but HE doesn't. It pays not to take anything for granted with a llama that has not worn a pack before.
The following is a step by step plan for introducing a pack. If your llama is not bothered by a particular step there is no need to repeat it. Too much repetition will only bore your llama and cause him to act out. With llamas that are comfortable with a halter and know how to lead this whole process may not take more than 20-30 minutes and might be accomplished in one session. If you reach a point of resistance, it is better to back up and repeat the previous step successfully, quit and resume the process the next day or the day after. Get your ego involved and turn the process into a fight and you will end up creating a problem where there wasn't one before. Llamas do think about things over night and many times what seemed to be impossible one day can be a piece of cake the next. If end up dividing this process into several lessons there is no need to begin at the beginning each time. You need only repeat the last one or two steps from the previous lesson. Teaching a llama to accept a pack is a handling more than a training process. The llama needs only to stand still he is not required to DO anything therefore little to no repetition is required. If you are having trouble with a particular step, do not repeat the step exactly as I have outlined it, instead figure out how to divide that step into two or more smaller, easier steps.
Llamas will accept new and potentially scary things best when these things are introduced in a catch pen (10' x 10' or so) with the llama left free. If your llama is the least bit fearful tying him up will convince him that something awful is going to happen. Imagine your first appointment with a new doctor, he says, "This won't hurt a bit but I just want to tie you down first." What would you think? You can attach a lead rope to the llama as you work but allow him to move around the pen freely. Use the lead only to determine the direction of travel not to slow him down or attempt to stop him from moving. I suggest that you leave the llama completely free within the confines of the catch pen.
When a llama is tied and cannot use his natural instinct to run away from things that are frightening-the flight response- he will use another instinctive behavior, the freeze response. This behavior is often misinterpreted as acceptance. Your cooperative llama stands very still as you slowly set the pack on his back and is so good you just go ahead and cinch the pack up. You think to yourself, "Wow this is really easy my a llama is so smart!" Untie your brilliant llama, ask him to take a step forward or walk through the gate that tugs on the pack and he may very well snap out of his state of suspended animation and go bonkers. I have met too many llamas that had really serious issues with a pack because they flew off in a panic the first time they ever wore one.
Leaving your llama free within the confines of the catch pen and allowing him to move about as you introduce new things will prevent this very common scenario from happening. If your llama is zinging around the catch pen or circling wildly as you introduce a particular step you probably need to back up a step or figure out how to divide the step into two steps. I will offer some examples of this problem solving technique as we go along. Allowing an occasional bite of food while introducing new items of equipment is a good practice. This is not a reward for any particular behavior but a way of making the process interesting and pleasant. Taking a few bites of food will also encourage your llama to breathe. When your llama is frightened or unsure he will tend to hold his breath. A llama holding his breath will be much more likely to explode or behave erratically. A bag of really juicy hay hanging in a corner will encourage cooperation as well as breathing.
You will need:
- A llama
- A 10 X10 catch pen
- A halter
- A wool blanket (twin or full size)
- A wand or lightweight pole
- A bath towel, dishtowel, and handkerchief
- Two lead ropes
- Various old pillows or rags
Steps for introducing a pack:
- Herd your llama to the catch pen. Halter your llama. Drape a small towel over your llama's back and let him walk around with it for a second or two. Pick up the corner and drag the towel off allowing it to touch the llama's legs as it drops to the ground.
Problem solving tip: If a towel seems to be a problem get something smaller, a washrag, or dishtowel and repeat the process gradually working up to bigger pieces of toweling. When retraining llamas or have had a bad packing experience I have started the process with a handkerchief folded in fourths. Do what works!
Always allow the llama to have a look and sniff at each new thing you are going to put on his back.
- Place a blanket folded in fourths (preferably wool- it sticks to the llama's body better) over your llamas back and drag it off as before. I suggest dragging the blanket or towel off in this manner to accustom the llama to strange items falling around his feet. This process prepares your llama for the inevitable- a slipping or falling pack or pannier, a dropped lead rope or items falling out of the pack. If your llama becomes upset or kicks at the blanket as it comes off repeat the process or back up to the previous step.
- Unfold the blanket one time and repeat the process. Continue unfolding the blanket and dragging it off until the blanket is completely unfolded. I like to use a blanket that is big enough to drag near the ground and touch the llama's legs a bit. Let your llama walk around and play Darth Vader for a minute or two. The purpose of this exercise is to get the llama used to things on his back and around his legs.
Remember do not tie up the llama for this procedure. At this point nothing is tied to the llama, if he panics the blanket will come off and that is fine.
- Refold the blanket in fourths and place it on the llama's back. Drape a lead rope over his back. Stand close to your llama facing the rear of the llama at the front shoulder. Reach over his back with one arm pushing the rope into your other hand, much as if you were going to give your llama a hug around his middle. This step will be much easier if you position yourself in the center of the catch pen (the hub of the wheel) with the llama tracking around the edges (the rim). By standing in the center you will not have to take many steps when your llama moves.
Avoid the temptation to tie your llama up if he is nervous. Tying him up will most likely cause a panic reaction. The rope under the belly can now become a practice cinch. Before you tie the rope around the llama and simulate a cinch, allow your llama to experience pressure on his back and pressure on his belly separately. Standing as before, use your hands and arms to push down gently on the llama's back. Next, with and end of the rope in each hand lift gently in the cinch area and release. Now you can tie the blanket snuggly to the llama. A wide flat lead rope or a heavy cotton rope works best for this step.
- . Most packs use a two-cinch system. You can simulate a second cinch with another lead rope. Pass the lead through the first cinch and repeat the process standing as before to bring the second cinch under the belly. Repeat all steps further back where the second cinch is to be worn, behind the spring of the ribs and a hand's width in front of the sheath on a male.
- Walk your llama around inside the catch pen. Snug up the pretend cinches a bit more and take your new "blanket" packer on a short walk. Let him brush up against things with his new gear and get used to the sensation of the rope around his belly as he walks and trots. Bring him back into the pen. To simulate panniers tie some pillows or towels to the "cinch." or tuck the pillows under your cinch. It is a good idea to tug on the "pretend" panniers so that your packing student will not be startled the first time something catches on a one.
Once your llama has graduated from this process a real pack will be no different. He has experienced all of the sights sounds and feelings associated with wearing a pack. The real McCoy will be an easy next step. When introducing the real pack make sure to give your llama a chance to inspect it before you sit it on his back. Work in a catch pen as before and pull the pack off the back a time or two from both the right and the left before you attach the cinches.
A note on "training packs": Many people invest in a training pack when they begin teaching their llama to pack. Unfortunately most training packs are all in one affairs that cannot be broken down into component parts. The handler must apply all parts of the pack at one time because the saddle panniers and cinch are all sewn together. In my opinion a training pack is not useful unless it can be taken apart. Using this method you need not spend money on a training pack, once your llama has experienced this process you can proceed immediately to a real pack.
Teaching Your Llama to Tie
Your llama should know how to tie before you take him in public. Learning to accept being tied up is different than being tied up and fighting it out. Fighting at the end of a lead rope (even one with elastic) can cause muscle, and spinal injury in a llama that is really panicked. If your llama has not been tied before or has not been tied with a pack on you may want to try the following.
Work inside a catch pen or stall. Halter your llama and attach a long flat smooth lead (or better yet a stake line) and pass it one time around a smooth fence post or one time through a tie ring. Hold the loose end in your hand. Which ever method you use to attach the line to the post or ring, the line should slide and release if your llama lays back on it.
Stand quietly with your llama and wait until he backs up on the lead. Hold the line and offer some resistance. If the llama begins to resist tap him on his back leg with the wand or pole mentioned earlier. Use the wand to encourage your llama to step forward an away from the pressure. If he continues to resist or starts to panic let up enough for him to calm down. Use a steadying voice, I like a long drawn out EEAAASSSSYYYY to steady a llama on the edge of panic. Once the llama is calm you can begin again. Next flap a towel a bit and when the llama backs up repeat the process of teaching him to come forward and away from the pressure on the rope. With this exercise you are teaching the llama to come forward when he feels resistance on his head and at the same time you are preventing a scary and potentially injurious first tying episode. With a long stake line you can move some distance away from your llama and leave him to stand for a bit. When you do tie your llama use a quick release knot and remain close enough to come to his aid. I like to tie my llamas to a piece of baling twine around a fence post so that if the llama does panic the baling twine will break under significant pressure.
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
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