Structural Guidelines for Pack Llamas
– by guest writer Wes Holmquist
I have recognized ten structural guidelines by seeing llama types that work well on the trail. These guidelines were developed by hindsight, not foresight of the brilliant. I love all my llamas and admire them for their spirit but have found that a packer cannot work on heart alone. The fact is that some are not physically capable of making the grade. In the llama world we can help our llama offspring make the grade by breeding to select studs and structural types that have proven themselves on the trail.
Notice I said structural types. These llamas don’t have to be classic llamas. What is a classic llama? It doesn’t matter here!!! Our concern is selecting llamas of certain structure; wool length is unimportant. What does it take to shear a llama-about 20 minutes? So if they have longer wool, 20 minutes of shearing every other year is not much of an investment in a pack llama that happens to have long wool. Of course, many llama breeders do not pack but they can benefit by following structural guidelines of selection developed by llama packers. I only expect my guidelines to be references, not God’s word. They are one man’s opinion based on experience and will give you a place to begin.
Any llama can pack and any willow stick is a fishing pole–right? But after we’ve fished a few times our taste in poles changes dramatically. There are lots of in’s and out’s in fishing pole types just like there are different llama types. For instance, a pole for fly fishing is built differently than a bait pole and a deep sea pole is different still. Similarly, a tall llama works better in places like getting over logs and creeks and has a great advantage in endurance over a heavily built shorter llama. A medium sized llama may be less intimidating than the larger muscle llama. Muscle llamas don’t hold up as well in the heat as the tall or medium sized because of their bulky inefficient muscling. Just as there are over 80 different horse breeds there are also different types of llamas.
Llama conformation is something often talked about but its hard to find strong guidelines as to what type suits a particular need. Given straight enough legs and top line and good general conformation, where do we go from there? I have tried to answer this question with my Ten Llama Selection Guidelines and Ten identifiable Llama Structural Types. In my opinion learning what works mechanically in a llama or any kind of animal or machine has to be learned in the field by testing and trial and error. There is no other way.
Certainly there are many reasons to have llamas other than to pack with them. Historically their primary use was and is as a pack animal. One way to determine ideal structure is by testing llamas by working with them in the mountains. Long wool certainly should not deter a llama from being used as a packer. Fancy llamas can be packers too but they need adequate structure to perform adequately. Neither will a large llama be good just because he is big. The bigger the llama is, the more critical the structure because of the extra mass he is carrying. One of the biggest pitfalls I have been through is buying llamas just because they are large. I’ve owned several llamas over 500 pounds and today I wouldn’t give you a nickel for them. I have certainly seen many long wooled llamas that fit the requirements for a pack animal. I have also had many big llamas that were big heavy slugs.
Llamas are worth owning just to have and are wonderful to have around. They fit the bill much better for a suburban farm than larger livestock because they are quiet, safe and inexpensive to care for. If you keep in mind the ideal llama types and establish breeding goals your llamas will be healthier, happier and be worth much more in the future. If you want to raise fancy llamas for show be aware that wool is desirable on the neck and legs with some color variations and blood lines bringing higher dollars. While you’re looking for wool, keep in mind the ideal structural types detailed below.
1. Llamas should be over X inches at the withers.
To develop a long stride and get over logs and not continually be snagging packs on downfalls llamas should be over X inches at the withers (shoulder). I have chosen 43″ as the magic number to assure an adequate performance. Certainly there are good pack llamas under this number.
2. Llamas should have longer legs than depth of body. Deep wide bodies are not a plus.
Short legged llamas don’t have a chance of keeping up. Deep bodies limit limb movement and add unnecessary weight. I quote Murray Fowler DVM, ” Natural pacers, such as camelids, have relatively long legs. This allows the animal to develop a long stride.” It is this long stride that allows the good packer to work efficiently.
3. Llamas should have a level topline. It is common but not desirable for a llama to be lower at the shoulder than the hips.
Llamas that are excessively short in the front legs have a difficult time negotiating down hill trails with a load. Longer legs in the front are a distinct advantage which allows him to develop a longer stride. Mules are higher in the withers than the hips which give them a noticeable advantage over horses in the mountains. Some wild animals such as wolves and mountain goats are noticeably higher in the shoulders. It follows that llamas should not be lower in the shoulders compared to their hips .
4. Llamas should be under six inches between the forelegs. It is an obvious disadvantage for the llama to be wide between their front legs because of their natural pacing gait.
Llamas that are wide in front usually have weak shoulders or just a big wide body that produces a weak and waddly gait.
5. Llamas should have a narrow to medium width frame.
There is no functional advantage for a llama to have a wide body and it means he is packing extra bulk that will bog him down, shortening his endurance and causing a waddly inefficient gait.
6. Llamas need evident chest muscling to tie their forelegs to the chest.
Chest muscling is a well recognized necessity in horse breeding. Good chest muscles complete the shoulder attachment and keeps these tissues from sagging and getting fibrous, stiff and sore.
7. Llamas should not be gelded before 1.5 years. Its preferable to wait until their fighting teeth are fully mature (around three).
Many llamas gelded early get sore and stiff joints and develop lameness. I’ve seen it many times and dont care to buy a llama gelded too young.
8. Llamas should have a long free stride with their front legs in order to have endurance on the trail.
Avoid llamas that have a short stride in the front end and often need to trot to keep up with a normal pace. This forces the animal to work harder than necessary and they will tire quickly on the trail.
9. Llamas must have good general conformation with strong ankles (pasterns).
Weak pasterns is a common failing in llamas. Watch them when they walk and trot and make sure their ankles do not have a spongy weak action.
10. Llamas should be under X pounds. Extra weight is a disadvantage for pack animals not a plus. Bragging about a llamas weight does not indicate that he or she is an excellent packer.
A small obese llama can easily weigh over four hundred pounds. A llama’s weight needs to correspond with its height and build. My personal goal is to keep all llamas under four hundred pounds. I own a 49″ llama that will pack 110 pounds and weighs about 340 pounds. I have also owned several llamas over 500 pounds that could not keep up on the trail even without a load.
Llama structural types
1. Tall Narrow frame, long legs, medium bone, medium length back, chest muscling evident. Tall llamas must have a shorter back proportionally than medium sized types.
2. Full Sized Big bone, but narrow frame and excellent ground clearance. Medium length back.
3. Muscle llama Medium width frame, big bone, big muscling with good ground clearance and medium length back.
4. Medium Narrow frame, medium height, a lot of ground clearance, medium bone but longer back.
5. Compact Shorter wither height, medium to large bone, longer legs than depth of girth. Can be big muscled and wider proportionally between the front legs and still be light, athletic and have good endurance. Many of the good compact llamas fall into the medium llama type too and do well in the mountains. The shorter llamas are limited in the weight they can pack but do well if they are structured as outlined here.
6. Tall weakling Chest muscling not evident, tall and skinny, may have been gelded early. It is easy to mistake this type for the Tall ideal type.
7. Bulldog Deep body, wide body, long body with short legs and neck. Big bone.
8. Duckwalker Wide body, wide between front legs, waddling gait and weak shoulders.
9. Long Back Long saggy weak back
10. Heavyweight Giant llama, deep and long bodied, labored stride, wide body, obese.
All llamas come in variations of these ten distinct body types. The distinctive type recognition is important because of how the change in one of the elements of structure will affect another. For instance a taller llama should have a medium length back but a small or medium sized llama will be structurally sound with a proportionally longer back because shorter limbs lessens the stress on the lumbar area. Observe in nature that animals like alligators and badgers have longer backs in combination with shorter legs. Giraffes on the other hand have very long legs and short backs. These various animals function well because their mechanics are correct for their structure.
There are in’s and out’s to selecting a llama but it is not as complicated as it seems. Keep in mind the structure guidelines and watch your animal move. If the llama moves effortlessly it will most likely have what it needs mechanically. Movement and function are the result of excellent structure. If you have experienced dragging a llama up the trail a few miles, you quickly become a connoisseur of structure and function. When breeding for show it is hard to bypass beauty for a slight structural defect. The ultimate goal in llama raising is to have beauty and function. This is a tough order to fill but I believe it is possible and can be an attainable goal.