Sunday, November 13, 2011

Performance Training

After doing quite a bit of performance training over the weekend while I was home, and receiving a question from a llama friend on the subject, I decided it was time to tackle the huge post about obstacles for performance training.  I took a bunch of pictures of our obstacle course last summer, so I'll go through what each obstacle is, how to build it (though many are just things I found around the farm), and how to train your llama to do it.  (I'm going to attempt to put these in order of increasing difficulty, at least in my opinion.)

Our whole obstacle course.
The first obstacle I'll start with is weaving.  You can use anything in place of the cones, but something tall is ideal so the lama knows it has to move around the object.  This is a good obstacle for any lama once it is halter trained- it teaches them to follow you no matter what.  You don't have to do a simple weave pattern, try skipping cones, or circling certain ones.  Once your lama knows how to back, you can practice backing around the cones too.

Next is deadfall (often called "step lightly").  Again, almost anything can be used in place of the branches, but branches are really easy to find!  For this obstacle, stick with small branches that sit on the ground.  Starting out, space them fairly well apart so it is easy for the lama to walk through them.  As they get better, add more branches or pile them closer together.  The basic idea is that you want the lama to walk through the branches calmly, without tripping.

Next is my assembly of different surfaces.  From left to right, the picture shows plywood, foam, plastic, wood lattice, tarp, and plywood.  Use any scraps you have lying around- linoleum, carpeting, sheet metal, etc.  By getting your lama used to many different surfaces, you have a leg up on many obstacles.  The plywood and lattice are usually pretty well accepted, but the foam, plastic, and tarp often scare the lama.  You just want the lama to walk calmly over all of the surfaces.

This is my backing obstacle (focus on the patch of bare green grass, not the obstacles on either side).  I used to have PVC pipes marking off my backing obstacle, but they kept getting misplaced so now I just position other obstacles to make a 4-5' lane to back through.  The slightly-raised obstacles are actually better barriers than the PVC- if the lama starts to not back straight, their foot hits the obstacle and they correct themselves.  Start with a straight backing obstacle, you can upgrade to an "L" shape, a square, or a circle.  Again, the idea is to get your lama to back up when you say a command.  I start by pushing the lama's chest gently, giving the command, and pushing backwards on the lead all at the same time.  Our lamas learn quick because they have to back out of our chute to get out.

This is the upgraded deadfall obstacle.  Here the lama really has to watch where they are going, and lift their legs higher (but not quite jump).  These are still just dead tree branches, but many people use 2x4's or PVC raise on one side.  Like the easier deadfall, start with the branches spaced far apart, and move them closer together.

This one is pretty obvious- a jump!  We used PVC with deck umbrella weights, but many people use logs or barrels.  Start with the jump low, and increase it over time.  For pack class, you can also use it low to teach the lama to step over something instead of jump.  You can also put the bar high, and practice ducking under.

The hula hoop is a very versatile tool for the obstacle course.  This can be 4-5 different obstacles all at once.  1) Have the lama stand with any combination of feet in the hoop (both front feet, both back feet, possibly all four feet if you have a small lama or a big hoop).  This is very popular at shows, you will often have to put both front feet in a hoop and pick up a foot/show teeth/put something on your lama.  It's pretty easy to forget about practicing things like picking up feet and showing teeth while obstacle training, so the hoop is a great reminder to practice those while you're going through the rest of the course.  2) Put the hoop over the lama's head, and have them walk through it.  3) Have the lama back through the hoop.  You can start with the hoop on the ground, have the lama stand with their back feet inside, pick up the hoop, and back the lama through the hoop, ending by bringing it over their neck and head.

This is another form of "step lightly".  It's harder than the deadfall obstacles because it is so narrow.  For that reason it is good practice for other narrow obstacles such as a raised plank.  I think this is an old ladder from our barn with some of the rungs missing.  Just like the deadfall, you want your lama to walk straight through the middle, without tripping.

This is the teeter-totter.  My dad built this obstacle- it is plywood on a 2x4 frame.  There's a notch in the 2x4's on either side, so that the log fits in the middle and it can move from side to side.  I painted it (added sand on top, and painted over the whole thing again once the first coat was dry) to give it a less slick surface.  Start out by walking your lama over just the flat surface (without the log) until they are comfortable, then try it moving.  Be prepared for your lama to spook the first time the frame moves!

This one is also pretty self-explanatory- a kiddie pool!  I bought this one for $5-10 at a chain hardware store in the summer.  Many shows use a plastic tarp over a 2x4 frame- anything that will hold water.  The plastic surface is pretty scary to most lamas, so it is good practice even without the water.  You can fill it with water or even packing peanuts and practice walking through those too.  Be careful though, my alpaca punctured many holes in this one with his toenails!  Some lamas love the water and won't want to leave, others hate it!

This is my make-shift stairs.  I have a big obstacle (see below) with stairs, but it is very narrow and steep, so not ideal for training.  This is simply made of 3 wood pallets.  You can also practice on stairs around your house, but don't use them if they don't have backs (many wooden stairs don't have backs- your lama could break a leg!).  At first, you can start with all the pallets flat on the ground, and get your lama used to the surface.  Then stack one on top in the middle and practice going up and down the stairs.  You can also use the top one as a ramp, just put it halfway up the other two on the side.

The dreaded tires...our lamas seem to hate these!  They are all old tires my dad had laying around the farm.  Make sure to cut holes in the bottom so they don't hold water, otherwise you will start breeding mosquitos!  For this obstacle, just place them haphazardly on the ground, and practice walking (calmly!) through them.  You'll probably have to start with gaps between the tires, and work up to the lama walking through the tires, not around them.

Once your lama is used to walking through tires, you can practice putting 2 feet in a tire.  Front feet are usually the easiest, but advanced classes often have to do the back feet or both the front and back feet (in 2 tires side by side).  Practice "placing" the feet with the hula hoop, and move up to the tires.

The most cryptic picture- this is my side pass obstacle.  It's just a piece of PVC pipe, but you can use a branch or a piece of wood.  You can put your lama on one side of the bar and yourself on the other side, or have your llama straddle the bar (front feet on one side, back feet on the other).  You'll probably have to start by poking your lama gently in the side to get them to move sideways, but you want to get to the point where you just put your arm out or even just use the command.  Make sure to practice both directions!

This might actually be the hardest obstacle, but maybe just for my herd.  This is a raised plank, about 6-8" off the ground.  It is just made of scrap lumber, painted like the teeter-totter above.  Most lamas have no problem stepping up on it, but they have trouble staying on the whole time.  If you can, get some helpers to stand on either side so the lama can't fall off.

Once your lama will put their front (or back) 2 feet in a tire, practice stepping up on something tall like this metal bucket.  Advanced classes often have to side pass in a circle with the front feet on top of the bucket!  You can also turn it right-side up and put feet inside the bucket.  It is also good for practicing side-passing or backing in a circle.

And last but not least, the big combo obstacle!  Ramp, bridge, and stairs all in one.  My dad built this one too.  Once your lama is good about going over the teeter-totter and stairs, you can try something like this.  Try it with helpers on the sides at first if you can, we had a llama once who fell off something like this (before we got him), and he wouldn't ever do obstacles after that!  With short steps like this, make sure not to let your lama skip steps on the way up or jump off on the way down.

I know it may seem strange to talk about obstacles after the show season is over for the year, but now is the time to start training for next year!

If anyone else has questions they'd like me to address, just let me know!

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