Thursday, October 24, 2013

Conformation, Utility, and Llamas

 by Jim Krowka

What makes a good pack llama? Ask 10 llama packers and you'll probably get 10 different answers. Most will probably agree that personality and willingness to work are important factors, but is there a relationship between conformation and the job of carrying heavy loads for miles over rugged terrain? Just what is good conformation in a llama? Breeders are quick to point out animals having good versus those having bad conformation and animals that are pet or show animals versus those considered "pack quality," yet who is deciding what the standards are and, more importantly, just what is the basis for these standards? Most breeders advertise that they are "breeding for good conformation," but does this mean more than an absence of gross physical abnormalities coupled with the currently accepted "look" governed primarily by wool distribution? I find difficulty in avoiding the perception that many breeders are viewing the conformation of their animals from a "stuffed toy" perspective-that is, judging the outline and perhaps some visible structural features rather than judging the entire actual structure alone.

The term conformation is normally used in reference to the overall physical make-up of an animal or how its body parts fit together. We can define "ideal" types or standards as we choose and can base them on one or more parameters. The more parameters, the less variation among animals within any particular "type". The most basic aspect of a standard for any animal whether llama, horse, cow or chicken should start from a purely mechanical standpoint with soundness or structural integrity, involving all structural aspects of the skeletal and muscular systems and how they relate to overall health, growth and normal motion and activities (please refer to "Form, Function, Conformation and Soundness," by Murray Fowler, Llamas Magazine, Nov/Dec 1986). Any animal breeder should take the responsibility to clearly understand the physiological principles regarding structure and action to avoid the creation of unhealthy and unsound animals. Another component of conformation is functional integrity-how an animal's conformation is suited to meeting human needs such as food, work and recreation or sport. Size and growth rate are important factors to consider when breeding an animal for food; strength and endurance are obviously necessary for a work animal; specialized athletic body types are necessary for sport. The final aspect involved in conformational standards involves the satisfaction of our aesthetic tastes. This could involve any aspect of the shape and balance of body type, including important structural elements, as well as more trivial aspects such as facial features or shape of ears.

When judging an animal's conformation, the obvious place to begin is by determining if any gross physical abnormalities exist that undermine structural integrity with the standards determined by what is normal for the species. Historically, people have next considered functional integrity. As an example, many breeds of horses have been developed, each having varying combinations of strength, agility, and physical and mental stamina as well as aesthetics in a body type suited to meet specific work or athletic functions. Racing thoroughbreds, draft horses, and quarterhorses all have their own own particular type of "good conformation". The important point to remember is that suitability for one particular function (determined by excellence in performance) plays a big part in determining the conformation of horses and other species of domestic livestock.

A strong athletic body type in performance animals is often aesthetically pleasing in its own right, but it MUST be remembered that it is quite easy to lose aspects of structural, physiological and even reproductive integrity when breeding for specific traits and especially for extremes in these visible rather than performance-proven traits. Breeding to satisfy aesthetic tastes even when those tastes are for a performance-type body appearance can compromise structural and functional elements. For example, love of a big, muscular look in quarterhorses has led to a non-working sub-breed with a body too big for the feet, resulting in foot problems. Similar situations can be avoided when excellence in performance is coupled with soundness and good health to become the key factors in choosing performance breeding stock.

The main problem is that no clear definition of even a single proper conformational standard seems to exist within the llama community. Definitions exist such as: conformation -the appropriate arrangement of body parts into the whole animal and overall appearance -the llama should be well proportioned, balanced and symmetrical. These are extremely vague and contain no specific information regarding even a single aspect of conformation. The second in particular can allow familiar notions of balance and symmetry (of horses and sheep, for instance) to unconsciously perpetuate unllama-like traits (short necks, long backs, equine-like gaits, and more). The only specific information available addresses the extreme negative traits such as sickle hocks or gopher ears. Assessing conformation solely from a visual perspective of balance and symmetry is ALWAYS subjective and can easily leads to problems. Llamas (which are basically no more than woolly guanacoes) initially captivated my attention because their particular lack of familiar symmetrical body proportions distinguishes them from other domestic livestock. Although we don't want to breed for a Dr. Seuss type of caricature, neither should we breed out the unique qualities and have them all looking like sheep (for instance) just because sheep look more "normal" to us.

Another faulty approach is exemplified by a question often asked when assessing llamas, namely, "How much does he weigh?" This question is totally irrelevant when assessing conformation and only significant when referring to animals bred for human consumption. Many people seem impressed when an answer of 400 lbs or more is given, illustrating the quite naive conjecture that the more a llama weighs the more he will be able to carry. Just how much of his weight is fat? (refer to "Do You Have A Pudgy Packer?" by Gwen Ingram, The Backcountry Llama, August 1989). Extremes in size may be important if one were to breed for "draft" llamas, but weight is only one factor that MUST be combined with the measurements of many structural parameters when assessing any relationship between size and suitability for such a specialized function.

Wool can present problems because it often hides or masks a llama's true conformation. An animal with fluffy wool can appear larger than one whose wool rests closer to the body, and smooth-haired legs appear finer-boned. Presence or absence of guard hair can alter the appearance of the backline. Standards set by sound physiological principles as determined by performance should differentiate good and bad conformation, and not apparent balance as affected by wool. These assessment difficulties exist even with short wooled llamas. Imagine the difficulties presented when attempting to visually evaluate a non-performing heavily wooled llama.

Prejudices favoring an individual animal can often lead to inaccurate assessment of conformation as well as performance. Many undeserved attributes are bestowed by proud owners on the basis of famous relatives alone whether or not the individual has proven to have those qualities. Affection towards certain animals can often cloud judgement by causing the rationalizing and even overlooking of shortcomings.

The main problem, lack of clarity in defining our needs and therfore our standards, provides a large area of uncharted territory regarding both structural as well as functional integrity. Is a short back better than a long back? How does the "ring" of muscles (refer to "Principles of Conformation Analysis" by Deb Bennett, PhD, Fleet Street Pub. Corp., 1988) function in llamas during strenuous activities such as traveling uphill and jumping obstacles and pulling a cart? Other aspects requiring consideration are relative leg length, neck length, chest width, angle of pasterns, bone size, hip and shoulder placement, and proportional size of feet. How a llama moves, walks and runs is the ultimate test as to how these factors are all functioning as a unit, reemphasising the need for more careful analysis of the relationship between performance and conformation.

After addressing some problems of accurate conformation assessment in llamas, we still don't know how optimum conformation will differ for a high-performance pack llama versus a high-performance cart llama. A horse bred to excel at racing short distances and starting quickly differs significantly in build from a horse bred to race longer distances. A horse bred to race while pulling a cart differs from one bred to race while carrying a rider. This doesn't even take into consideration the differences in horses bred to excel using different gaits as well as disciplines other than racing. It seems foolish to assume that there is one ideal llama conformation which allows a llama to truly excel at varied disciplines.
Llamas are not yet being selectively bred (at least by most) for specific uses. We all know that llamas can be brushed and/or shorn for their wool, be jogging and hiking companions, pull carts, and-most importantly to me-serve as pack animals. It is disconcerting, however, that very little concrete information is available to assess relationships between conformation and the various uses. One reason for this could be that the majority of llamas that exist in this country are not really being used much for any purpose other than making more llamas. Another is that since most owners and breeders aren't more than casual users, there just isn't a demand for a high performance body type-almost any llama except the extremely woolly and small animals can serve with some degree of adequacy in average working situations. It is basic economic sense that the health and viability of the industry would be enhanced if possible uses were more fully realized and promoted. Accompanying conformational standards should evolve to insure that soundness is maintained in spite of these uses.

The motion towards distinct sub-types or "breeds" of llamas is evident in North American llama breeding, yet all of these "breed" distinctions are currently based solely on qualities associated with wool. The fact that halter class entries are defined by wool length illustrates that, aside from trendy, non-functional features such as short necks and banana ears, differences in body "type" (not to be confused with soundness) is either considered relatively unimportant or is perhaps to most people largely unassessable when determining quality. An important point to remember is that wool (length, color, quality, placement and distribution) has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the term conformation. By definition, conformation is a term used to describe the body itself.
A further indication that the current notions of "good conformation" are not determined by structural and functional principles is that the classification of "pack quality" is given almost indiscriminantly to most short-wooled animals regardless of body type and without proven working ability, much less excellence. I am often angered and less often amused by what seems to be only an attempt to give a useful, saleable label to short-wooled animals (which many breeders obviously consider to be inferior) and the attitude that just any short-wooled llama will do as a packer for everyone.

It is our personal experience that some llamas CAN outperform others even when conditioning and training are equal. Training, experience and genetic predisposition all play a part in determining character, and there are many factors that determine attitude towards work. We am convinced, however, that a body well suited for a particular kind of work can definitely have a better effect on willingness and mental attitude than can a physique less suited to performing in the same situation.
Hopefully someday, when asked the all-too-familiar question, "Just what are llamas good for anyway?", we'll be able to confidently elaborate on the many uses of llamas and their respective suitable conformations which allow them to excel at such uses without sacrificing soundness or structural integrity. Only then will we successfully convey the impression that llama breeding is a healthy industry whose fascination is directed toward more than merely decorative "stuffed toys".

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Copyright © 1989 by Jim Krowka.  All rights reserved.

This article has appeared in a number of llama print publications over the years.  For reprint permission, please contact Jim Krowka or Gwen Ingram at Lost Creek Llamas and Lost Creek Llamaprints.