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Teaching to Back Up

Your Lama Needs to Know How to Back Up

By Linda Hayes

ALSA, ILR & AOBA Judge

There are any number of reasons your lama needs to know how to back up.  Around the ranch, getting out of a trailer or the restraint chute are prime examples.  In the show ring, knowing how to back just a few steps allows you to properly "square up" the lama to show off their best conformation.  Performance exhibitors are always asked to back up and often the backing obstacle is complicated and challenging.

There are four steps to training. As the lama learns your commands, you will not need to use them all. He will react to more subtle voice or body movements.

  1. Say the command - in this case "back". Always use the same word and the same tone of voice.
  2. Move into the lama's personal space. The end goal is to have your animal respond to your body movements or at least the movement coupled with a quiet voice command.
  3. Use the lead to pull back on the halter. Do this gently. No jerking allowed. One of the main ways to punish a lama is to jerk on their heads. So use a soft hand.
  4. Physically make the lama go where you want. In this case your first goal is just one step back.

Now here is something that is very important. Don't do all four things at once. Start by standing in front of the lama and saying "back". Then pause for a moment. Follow that by moving into their space and again pause. Next, put pressure on the lead and give the lama time to respond, i.e. pause. When that doesn't get a response, use the tickle or push to the chest. Repeat this over and over, always including the pause between commands.

I have seen people try to force the lama to back by stretching the lead rope across the lama's neck and pushing on them. This is awkward and not very subtle. If you must put hands on, tickle them on the chest. When the chest moves back, the neck and head are sure to follow.

Your first goal is to get just one step taken backward. Once this is accomplished, give them a reward. Usually just a loose lead will do, but a bit of grain can also work. Sometimes they need to be rewarded just for switching their weight back without any foot movement at all. Training is a matter of taking small steps to accomplish your end goal.  If you give a verbal reward like "good boy", use the same tone of voice and same words each time. Follow it with a physical reward such as the loose lead. In time, just the words will be all you need to use.

I'm sure the first time you do this the lama is thinking "This guy is nuts!"  That's why you pause after each command. You want the lama to have time to digest what is happening. Once he has taken a step back, give a reward. You are also teaching him that if he obeys your first command (voice) you won't touch him, get in his space or pull on his face (halter). It won't be long before this soaks in. You can do a lot of damage to the training process if you forget and do them all at once or in the wrong order. Remember: voice, move, lead, and then touch.

After a while, you will find that the lama no longer needs to be touched and will back with just pressure on the lead. Once you get this far, work on increasing the number of steps taken. In the end, you want him to respond to slight movements of your body or quiet voice commands. In the performance classes, a lama that backs without pressure on the lead is sure to be a winner. In the halter ring and around the ranch, it makes life a lot easier.

It's important to keep your training sessions short. Ten minutes twice a day is better than twenty all at once. It gives the lama time to think about what has happened. You have heard the term "Let's sleep on it"?  I think lamas invented it because it seems to work well for them. You can spend all day trying to teach something that they simply refuse to do and then come back the next day and they do it like they knew how all their lives.

Okay, your lama now knows how to back. It's time to use this same training in the halter ring. With a relaxed, responsive lama at the end of the lead, you would go through the following steps to make sure he is standing correctly.

  1. Be in a position where you can ask the lama to take a step straight forward. Sometimes you have to get out of line and move up into position again to make this possible. It's allowed, just don't do it over and over.
  2. Ask the lama to stop. A correct lama usually stops with the hind feet where you want them.
  3. If his back feet are not positioned correctly, move him forward or backward until the rear feet are side by side with weight equally balanced. Remember always get the hind feet placed before moving the front.
  4. If the front feet are not in place, use your ‘backing up’ training to get the lama to move each front foot ever so slightly until it is where you want it. With practice you will see the lama actually hold the foot in the air until your body language tells him to put it down.

I know this sounds nearly impossible to those of you who never show in obstacle classes, but as a performance judge, I can tell you, these animals are amazing and with trust and training you can get them to do almost anything. Just watch the kids in the performance classes at the next show you attend. Many have totally trained lamas.

Once all four feet are correctly placed, the lama will be balanced for visual and hands on inspection. Your time and effort will have paid off. Even if you don't win the blue ribbon, you can bet that your peers and the judge will have noticed what a great showman you are and how well trained your animal is. That's not a bad feather to put in your cap.

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