Alpaca Articles : Handling

Handling Cria at an Early Age

When it comes to handling alpacas, it is better if they will accept our touch to ease any stress, to understand what we want and to develop confidence and trust in us. This acceptance also enables us to halter train at a young age.

You should never intervene unnecessarily between a mother and cria during the birth process or for several hours afterwards, as this time is important for the bonding process and for the establishment of successful feeding. However, you can start handling on the day of birth, but only do so if all is going well and mum and cria have established a correct relationship.

It is important to never chase or pounce on the cria in the paddock, but have your arms out stretched and catch it in the corner of a small paddock with gates if necessary. It is ideal to shake a feed bucket and quietly walk your dams and cria up to a yard area. They will soon get used to having their daily ration, while weighing and handling the cria.

The first few days

For the first few days spend time handling the whole body, from head to toe by rubbing each area for 20 seconds. Make sure the cria is not leaning on you, and keep touching the same areas that they feel jumpy or uncomfortable with until they relax. Continue this for a few days until you are satisfied the cria stands well and then decrease the times handled depending on the acceptance of the cria. It is vitally important that every time you release the cria, for the cria to be standing as relaxed as possible before releasing, then walk off quietly. It is very beneficial to use this method throughout adulthood.

It is most important for us not to bond with the cria by looking in their eyes and treating them like a cuddly teddy bear, even though it is very tempting at times. If bonding develops between you and the cria, they can start to regard you as their own kind and treat you as such. When reaching maturity they could exhibit behavior such as pushing, spitting, and even chest butting. We don't want our males thinking they can boss us around. This may surprise some of you, but be aware that the animals that walk up to you in the paddock and are born extremely friendly are more likely to develop this behavior if encouraged. You can lightly flick the nostril just enough to discourage this behavior progressing.

If the cria is skittish and if the dam is not a quiet animal herself, you may wish to intensify the handling process to prevent this characteristic from being perpetuated into the offspring. In the paddock and by having the dam on the other side of the fence to watch, the handler can sit on the ground with the cria lying on its side on the ground. To keep the cria from getting up at any stage, one leg over the neck and at times hand on the rump when they kick is sufficient. The cria's body is divided into sections and handled in one area at a time. Each part is gently but firmly massaged to the count of 20, if during the count the cria starts to struggle, the count starts again from one on the same section of body. Once one side of the body is completed the cria is turned over and repeated on the other side. In some cases the cria becomes very relaxed and may even stay in the same position, until they realise you have gone. Repeat this for the first three days; sometimes it may be necessary to continue every other day until the cria relaxes.

Although I do not physically do anything to the dam, it seems in many cases to improve her behaviour too, as she learns to trust you with her cria. Most dams are concerned initially, but soon realise no harm is being done to their cria and start to graze happily nearby.

Halter Training

Training to lead can start from 3-4 weeks onwards, as long as you have a correct fitting cria halter. Separate in the yards and then leave the dam in the paddock. This time also helps the cria to develop more independence, which is beneficial when weaning or showing at a young age. However, always have another animal nearby in a pen, without being able to interfere, as it could get tangled in the lead. It is also preferable to train with another cria.

There are many theories and methods around, some of them work well, others don't. Alpacas that eat out of your hand are not necessarily the ones that are easy to halter train. The ones that won't eat out of your hand, are standoffish and a bit skittish may just surprise you! The bottom line of the problem is that the alpaca does not understand what you want! Once they understand, piece of cake and they become very excited and interested.

Training usually starts at weanling age, but before that you can work a bit on being handled, touched and their legs desensitized. Work with their faces, ears and mouth, so they know you and that you don't hurt them when touching them. Put a halter on, let them try to shake it off. If the halter is well fitted they forget about it in a short time and just start grazing. Leave the halter on for a day. Take it off. Put it on some days later. Let them smell it and put it in their bowl of dry feed. With adults, do the same thing. Hold them and work with their head, let them feel your hand around their jaw, ears and mouth. Facing and putting on the halter may frighten the adults. In difficult cases, put the alpaca in a narrow race. Stand beside and place the halter ON TOP of the head and slowly slide it down over the nose in such a way that you can fasten it quickly when over the nose and mouth. Now you've got the halter on. Step two is to get them to walk! I have tried many methods for this, but the one that works best takes the least effort on my behalf; the alpaca does the job, basically. You need an inner tube of a bicycle (or one meter of 7mm elastic cord or "shock-cord" tied together at the ends).

The Bungi chord method. Safety must be your main focus. Preferably tie alpacas against a wall, attach an inner tube to a hitching ring and then the lead approximately 1 foot to halter, with a quick release knot. Alternatively, place the inner tube or loop of shock cord around a post in your yards, pulling one loop through the other end. Put the lead on the alpacas halter. Tie the lead onto the end of the loop of tube or shock cord that comes through the big loop, with a distance of about 30cm (1 foot) from the post, also with a quick release knot. The distance has to be short to prevent the alpaca from jumping over the yard and hanging itself. Don't do this on a single post in the middle of a paddock, as they will only walk themselves tight to the post, which does not help at all. Have other alpacas close by in a pen, or preferably another alpaca tied nearby, not close enough to touch.

Then leave the animals. Stay close enough to observe and react, but don't stay in the pen, move out of their sight. The animal will start to pull, the elastic will give, and tension releases as soon as they relax and move forward. Some animals sit down, but after a while become bored and start pulling again. The more they fight it the better. The elastic is more willing and stronger than your elbow tendons (training 5 will give you a real sore arm with pulling!!). The alpaca will not see you as the obstacle or source of the problem. Observe the alpaca's response on the inner tube. Once they have learned that it is more comfortable to relax and move forward, rather than pulling back, try the next step. Undo the knot and see what happens. If bucking occurs, tie up again for another half hour. Have a cuppa. Don't talk to the animal, don't hang over the yards, just let it be. Try again. When starting to lead your alpaca, stand in front of alpaca about a metre distance, lead sideways if necessary to take off balance.

When following the lead, walk in front of the alpaca, leading the animal behind you. Take it out to the lawn or other unknown area and let it walk behind you. Give the lead occasional little "shocks" while walking, a reminder of the shock cord. They will quickly understand, that a firm pull forward, means step forward. NEVER tug repeatedly, always keep the pressure on the lead until they take a step, then release as soon as the step has been taken, and repeat this method until leading. If this goes well, make the lead shorter and shorter and eventually to the stage where the alpaca is walking next to you. Use both sides, left and right handling to walk them. If this all works, you should not have to pull at all, and give the lead some slack, allowing the animal to walk in a natural fashion. If you do continue pulling when the alpaca is walking, you will confuse the process, make it slower and you will not have a desirable outcome.

Walk in circles, figures of 8, over the deck, on the gravel or concrete. Let them walk up a little staircase of the deck or jump on and off it. Take them inside the house (after wiping their feet!!), let them go into the trailer. Most of all: have patience. You can spread this out over a week or more. I have done it with one stroppy 3 year old wether in less than 2 hours!

Always remember the action of the inner tube is the action we want them to continue with, and if they are not catching on, tie back up.

Other Tips:

  • Pull the lead to one side when the alpaca stops walking and keep the lead tight. It takes away the balance, resulting in taking a step. Release tension when taking a step forward. Keep giving gentle pulls when just learning to walk on the lead, reminding the alpaca of the shock cord
  • Let them stand and walk again, stop and walk, stop and walk, by moving in front of the eye of the alpaca. Move behind the eye to start walking. Let them walk at their own pace. Some will catch on sooner than others. If the alpaca does not understand, tie back up
  • Don't allow at any time to let the animal sit down. Once you accept it, it will be a way of "getting out of it". Put your hand under their tail and lift. As alpacas don;t like this area to be touched, they will get up quickly. Keep the lead tight to one side to get it moving
  • After your alpaca understands the process of walking on a lead let someone "play the judge", by going over the fleece, while you gently hold the alpaca at the head. Put your hand on the withers and press down when you sense the animal is going to buck. Hold the lead closer to the halter, but don't pull, as the animal will pull back
  • Round or plaited leads are best for training. They don't flop in the wind
  • Use a normal halter when training, with adjustable noseband. If the noseband is over the soft part of the nose, the alpaca can't breathe properly and will panic. The noseband should be over the hard bridge of the nose, close to the eyes. The headband must be tight, but should allow your finger between the head and the band. A loose fitting halter is scary for the alpaca, so fit the halter properly and mark the halter for that particular animal. Adjusting to another alpaca is done easily if you have experience, but for a show allocate each alpaca its own halter. When wearing the halter for more than 24 hours and when it is either wet or warm (sweating) the fleece around the head will compress. The halter will become slack. Adjust this to make a proper fit

Important key points

  • Safety must be your main focus when tying up
  • Observe the alpacas response on the inner tube, and when they have learned that it is more comfortable to relax and move forward, rather than pulling back, try the next step
  • Have other alpacas close by in a pen, or preferably another alpaca tied nearby, not close enough to touch
  • Always take one step at a time, you can’t rush training
  • NEVER tug repeatedly, but always keep the pressure on the lead until they take a step, then release as soon as the step has been taken, and repeat this method until leading
  • If you do continue pulling when the alpaca is walking you will confuse the process, make it slower and you will not have a desirable outcome

Always remember the action of the inner tube is the action we want them to continue with. If they are not catching on, tie back up.

Be aware that any habits learned at this time will be with your alpaca for the rest of his life!

Trudi Goodwin is an Australian alpaca breeder and alpaca show judge.