I am always surprised at how many times I get asked, “Why do you halter train them?” For the same reasons horses and dogs are trained on a lead – to safely and effectively interact with them. If they are going to a show, going to be weighed on a scale, examined by a vet, being bred or anything else, you need to be able to work with your alpaca.
Alpaca training and halter training is surprising easy, as long as you approach it in the right manner.
For us, because we have our cria in the Summer, most our babies are ready to be weaned just after Christmas. At this point, we gather our 6 month olds and put them in their own pen. Six months is an ideal age, but they can go at 5 months if the mother needs a break. It takes a lot of energy to support a cria and fend off the cold weather, so if they are loosing weight, being “too good of a mom” by putting all of their energy into nursing, the baby has got to go.
For the first week or so, we just let the babies adjust. They are nervous, sad and lonely and you are of little help to them. By the next week, they start to glom onto you, seeking you out for comfort. This is when the training begins.
Each cria is haltered and tied tightly to a wall, standing together, for approximately 5 minutes. They will flail and panic, not sure that is going on. You can put an experienced, older alpaca in with them to help calm them down if you like. The next day, tie them up for 7-10 minutes, then let them go. Each day, progress a little bit. (We give them pellets each time they are let go.)
Putting a halter on correctly is crucial. They only breathe out of their nose, so you cannot cut off the airway with a strap pushing down on the end of the nose. From the tip to about half way up their nose is cartlidge. The rest extending up to the base of their eyes is bone. Fit the halter securely and snuggle on the bridge of their nose near their eyes. If the halter slips forward on the nose, it interferes with its breathing, and the camelid will feel threatened and 'play up'.
After about a week, they are comfortable with this, knowing they will be let go in a matter of time. Because alpacas are naturally shy, it is imperative that you desensitize them at this stage. They are all about learning at this point, and are easily controlled. Trying to train a 140 lb 6 year old female is no easy task. Do not set yourself up for a crazy camelid.
We begin by taking our fingers and just starting to tap their fleece, slowly moving on to rubbing their bellies, covering their eyes and getting them used to all sorts of touch. Do not move too fast for them. They may get overwhelmed and become very agitated. Over time, pick up their feet, put your fingers in your ears and in their mouth. This helps them get used to dewormers or medicines that you will inevitably need for them in the years to come.
After about 10 – 14 days, they are ready to begin to walk on their lead. Stand about 5 ft away from them, the lead stretched out between the two of you. Gently pull on the rope. Give light, constant pressure until they move one of their feet and then release. Take about 3-5 seconds, then do it again. Reward them by releasing the pressure even if it is sideways. As long as they move, give them slack temporarily. Continue moving them towards you until they are right in front of you. Touch their nose to yours, then back up 5 feet and do it again.
They will take extreme baby steps at first. Try going 10-15 ft, turn around and go back and then tie them back up. Go a little further and longer the next day.
Our kids usually take 6 weeks to train from the first time catching to walking through obstacle courses we set out for them – over tires, rattling buckets, jumping around. They need to feel confident that you are in control and no harm will come to them when they are next to you. It also gives you a chance to get to know each alpaca individually and their personalities, building a trusting relationship with them.