Alpaca Articles : Handling
Solving Major Behavioral Problems in Thirty Seconds
Author - Marty McGee Bennett, www.camelidynamics.com
I am only partly kidding. If you haven't paid very close attention to halter fit and you are having trouble with one of your alpacas, you may be able to solve the problem in thirty seconds. I have worked with hundreds of difficult alpacas that were difficult only because they were in fear for their lives every second they wore a halter. I have seen problems from kicking to kushing evaporate because I changed or adjusted a badly fitting halter.
Red, blue, black, brown, polypropylene, nylon, leather, X-style fixed noseband, three way adjustable, there are a lot of halters to choose from. It is CRITICAL you understand and appreciate how important halter fitting is to your alpaca. Your success as a handler and trainer depends on it. Paying attention to halter fit is easy, and there are few other changes that can make such an immediate and dramatic difference in behavior.
The issue is not only what type of halter you select, but how it fits. Many owners believe that if a halter can be attached to the alpaca's head - it fits. NOTHING could be further from the truth.
Alpacas are semi-obligate nasal breathers. This means that they CANNOT survive if forced to breathe solely through their mouths. Anything that compromises the nostrils or the nasal passages is not only uncomfortable, it is life threatening. When compared to other animals the nose bone in camelids is comparatively short and drops off sharply.
Notice in this photo that when downward pressure is applied to the halter it actually compresses the cartilage compromising the airway.
Add this to the awesome leverage that a camelid's long neck affords, and it is easy to understand why alpacas are often reluctant to allow us to halter them. Haltering and halter fitting is further complicated by a camelid's horizontal head set. Because an alpaca carries his head with the nose oriented horizontally rather than vertically (like a horse) a halter that slips off the bone must literally overcome gravity to return to its original position.
The Elements of Halter Fit: The Big Three
A properly fitted halter's noseband not only rests on the bone but stays there NO MATTER WHAT. It isn't enough for the halter to start out on the nose bone, it must stay there when the animal pulls back, bucks, rolls, grazes, steps on his lead rope, breaks away from the handler dragging his lead, or scratches his face with his foot. The smaller the animal the shorter the nose bone and the trickier he is to properly fit.
It is particularly important to understand the dynamics of halter fit if you intend to use your halter for any type of restraint. It is incredibly frightening for an animal to be tied or restrained, in a halter that feels as if it could slip off the nose bone. Imagine how you would feel with your feet tied to the bottom of a swimming pool with just enough of your nose above water to barely get a breath. This experience might give you some idea of what it is like for an alpaca to wear a badly fitting halter in a restraint chute. Animals that have been restrained in an ill-fitting halter never forget the experience.
Preventing harm to your camelid is the highest priority of halter fit. From your alpaca's point of view the second most important aspect of wearing a halter is comfort. Your alpaca should be able to do everything with his halter on that she does with her halter off. These activities would include eating and grazing, ruminating and yawning.
Well fitting halters do not rub raw spots or create calluses on your animal's head even if left on for a few days. Once the halter is adjusted properly your alpaca should quickly forget that it is even there until you use it to communicate with him.
The halter is the most important piece of equipment you own. Horse people have a variety of tools to communicate with their horses. They have a choice of bits and other tack as well as their legs and seat with which to signal their requests. Essentially alpaca trainers have a halter and a lead rope. It only makes sense to select a halter that is truly effective as a tool of communication.
Types of Halters
When the camelid phenomenon first began, it was a challenge to find a halter-any halter-that would remotely fit a camelid. Many people had their own halters made or used modified sheep or foal halters. Now the reverse is true. It is just as frustrating these days to pick and choose from all the types of halters available. There are three types of halters with variations on these basic themes: fixed noseband, x-style and adjustable.
Fixed Noseband: This type of halter features a continuous loop for the noseband that cannot be adjusted. The crown piece may be adjusted but any variation in the noseband is achieved only by changing to a different halter in a different size.
X-style halter: A halter in which the crown piece and the noseband form a continuous loop. It is not possible with an X-style halter to adjust the noseband and the crown piece independently from one another. Loosening the crown piece provides slack in the noseband; tightening the crown piece takes up slack in the noseband.
Adjustable Halters: These halters feature adjustability in both the crown piece and the noseband. These two elements can be adjusted independently of one another.
Another important aspect of a halter is the way in which the possible adjustments can be made and how they fasten. Some halters have a slide arrangement others feature buckles and holes and still others use fastex or spring loaded clips. Halters usually come in nylon, leather or polypropylene, in a variety of widths.
A two-way adjustable halter-a buckle halter with adjustability in both the crown piece and noseband-meets these criteria better than any other type of halter I have found. The proper halter is one thing, but how you adjust is on your animal is everything. The same halter on the same animal could be safe, comfortable and effective, or it could be unsafe, uncomfortable and useless. The outcome is totally dependent on how the handler adjusts the halter.
X-style halters are fine for animals that already know how to lead. They are usually comfortable and do a good job of staying put on the nose once properly adjusted. They fit a wide variety of animals. On the down side they don't convey signals from the handler to the animal as well as a halter with an independently adjustable noseband.
I DO NOT like or use halters with fixed nosebands. They are more often than not unsafe, uncomfortable and do a poor job of communication as well. These halters are inexpensive to manufacture and are quite prevalent especially for smaller or young alpacas. This is very unfortunate in that a young alpacas smaller head makes it even more important to have an adjustable noseband.
Putting Your Halter on and Making Adjustments
Dynamics of adjusting the halter
Many alpaca owners are unaccustomed to seeing a halter noseband this close to the eye and are reluctant to adjust the halter this way. Concern for the eye is misplaced. Once on the face a halter cannot poke an animal in the eye and the graduated shape of the nose prevents the halter from slipping up over the eye.
Halters high up on the nose bone disappear from the animal's view and are less obtrusive than when they are closer to the front of the nose. In order to be firmly on bone and to be safe the halter must be very close to the eye. This is true for virtually all alpacas. Depending on the size and head shape, many alpacas under four months of age may be too small to wear a halter comfortably. These animals have such a small amount of bone to work with that you must tighten the crown piece up so tightly that the halter is uncomfortable otherwise the halter is unsafe.
It is my belief that alpacas and alpacas are distracted and annoyed by halters that rest in what I call the danger zone-the middle area of the nose bone. When the handler puts forward pressure on the halter as in leading it feels as if the halter could slip off the bone. The animal is literally waiting for the ax to fall. Animals wearing halters with the noseband in the danger zone may: become extremely resistant to wearing a halter, kush when asked to lead or will bolt or panic suddenly as if for no reason.
Contrast the halter fit in these two photo the photo on the right is fitted properly- the nose band rides well up on the nose bone close to the eye. In the other photo the noseband is riding dangerously close to the edge of the nose bone.
When discussing halter fit owners always ask me to quantify how to do it. They want to know how to adjust the halter in terms of numbers of fingers or inches, how much room to leave in the noseband and the crown piece, and where exactly on the nose bone the noseband should rest. I cannot make quantitative guidelines that will work for all animals. You must think about fit proportionately.
The Crown Piece
The adjustment of the CROWN piece is what determines how far the noseband can slip forward. How much room you should leave in the crown piece is totally dependent on the length of the nose bone. This means that the crown piece can be looser on a big headed alpaca than it can be on a small or young alpaca. It also means that a very short nose bone requires a very snug, if not tightly fitting crown piece.
Notice in this photo of a skull that the nose bone is not very long and a halter can easily slip off if not adjusted quite high up on the nose to begin with.
The length of the nose bone is different for adults versus weanlings or babies and for alpaca and alpacas. The portion of the nose bone in front of the eye might be an inch long on a weanling alpaca and 3-4 inches in length on an adult alpaca. Young animals whose heads are simply too small to fit both safely and comfortably in any halter, need to grow some more. I think it is only fair to wait to put a halter on until you can satisfy both requirements.
The length of the nose bone also varies from individual to individual. I have palpated nose bones and found that they were much shorter than I expected them to be. In many cases these alpacas exhibited extreme behavior related to haltering.
Also halters tend to stretch when warmed up by the animal's body heat changing the way a halter fits. On a big alpaca halter, stretch is of little consequence, but on a weanling alpaca tied to a fence it can be extremely significant.
Compare and contrast these two photos. Look at the photo of the skull as you analyze them. The one on the right is well up on the nose bone and fits properly. The halter in the other photo is riding just at the edge of the nosebone and although it looks pretty good a halter fitted this way will distract the llama because it is teetering on the edge of the bone. It is particularly dangerous to use an improperly fitted halter for staking an animal out or for any kind of restraint.
Adjusting the noseband has far more to do with comfort then it does with safety. The noseband must allow the alpaca enough lateral movement to ruminate, eat and graze unencumbered. Again this varies depending on the size of the animal and his jaw.
Adjusting the halter so that it is close to the eye is not only safer it also means the noseband is much closer to the hinge of the jaw. When the animal chews there is less lateral movement at the hinge of the jaw than at the front of the mouth. Have a look at your animal while he eats. Because of this fact you can snug up the noseband close to the eye a bit more and still leave plenty of room for eating and rumination. A snugger noseband is more effective for communication.
Many people complain that they have a certain alpaca that is much harder to fit-these animals usually have a very steep nose bone and a shorter nose.
When haltered in the traditional way the halter slides right down the nose bone like a car on a steep icy hill. Adjusting the halter as I suggest also solves this problem.
The halter design
Many halters on the market are not proportioned to be worn as I describe. No matter how hard you try, you won't be able to adjust them as I have described. This is because the parts of the halter are not the right length. In some cases the noseband is simply not big enough to allow it to be worn close enough to the eye to be safe. Buying a larger halter with more room in the noseband may not solve the problem because the crown piece may be too long. Some halters have a cheek piece that is too long. A long cheek piece causes the crown piece to slip down the neck.
A low crown piece is not unsafe but a halter is most useful for communication when it stays at the poll-immediately behind the ears. With certain halters if you tighten the crown piece so that it is up behind the ears (where it should be), a cheek piece that is stiff and too long forces the noseband down into the danger zone.
Some halters feature a fleece lining under the noseband ostensibly for greater comfort. A fleece lining inside the noseband is no substitute for proper fit. Fleece lining on a noseband that is already too small only makes it tighter and more uncomfortable.
Adjusting a Halter
A properly fitting halter is safe and comfortable. The noseband rests firmly on bone and stays there NO MATTER WHAT. There is enough room in the noseband for the animal to chew without interference.
If you have doubts about animals you have haltered after reading this article put your current halter on and adjust as usual. Really look at your animal. Does the halter interfere with the freedom of movement in the jaw? Does your alpaca have to struggle to get a mouthful of grain or hay? Do his nostrils flare more with the halter on than off? Take hold of both sides of the noseband of the halter and tug forward. If you can pull the halter forward off the bone, your animal can too and is in danger.
I did a clinic in Alaska some year's back. We were working on leading techniques and one of the young males was impossible. He would walk along nice as pie and suddenly for no apparent reason go absolutely bonkers. He was difficult to halter and had a history of this type of behavior on the lead.
I thought the halter fit was marginal, but we were working in a field some distance from the barn. This guy took a while to halter the first time. It was close to the end of the day, and I didn't want to go to the trouble of taking this alpaca back to the barn and changing his halter. I remember thinking "That alpaca has the brains of a gnat."
He was a young intact male, and I thought he was a nervous, high-strung, alpaca feeling his hormones. I watched as this guy blew up with several different people. I finally decided to take the time to change his halter. When I brought him back after changing his halter the group thought I had switched animals. The behavioral change was unbelievably dramatic. I almost couldn't believe it. He was a puppy dog on the lead and not only with me. Five or six different people lead him over and under challenging obstacles.
This is one of many examples in my memory of positive behavior changes spurred by the seemingly simple act of equipping your alpaca with a properly fitting halter. If I have scared you about halter fit, it is for good reason. Paying attention to halter fit has a direct impact on the safety of your animals and your success as a handler. Use these guidelines and you can rest easy knowing your alpaca is comfortable and free from danger.
Marty McGee Bennett - Author, columnist, trainer
Article reprinted with permission of Marty McGee Bennett, www.camelidynamics.com