Outdoors

Llama owners put their animals to the test on Kansas terrain (+video)

Llama pack trial competition in Kansas

Llamas from three states gather in the Kansas Red Hills to be tested. (By Michael Pearce/The Wichita Eagle)
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Llamas from three states gather in the Kansas Red Hills to be tested. (By Michael Pearce/The Wichita Eagle)

Since the days of the Comanche, Kansas’ Gyp Hills have been horse country. Many ranchers still depend on steeds to access rugged land for both business and pleasure.

But recently a different domestic animal traversed the red trails, their long, feathery coats rippling in the hard wind while their nimble hooves barely left a track on soft, bare soil.

Llama aficionados came from three states to let their animals do what they were raised to do – be beasts of burden.

Llamas from three states gather in the Kansas Red Hills to be tested. (By Michael Pearce/The Wichita Eagle)

“Llamas can do about anything a horse can do, except be ridden,” said John Fant, who lives near Fort Smith, Ark., and was part of a llama pack trial near Medicine Lodge. “Some are trained to pull carts, others are bred to show. We’ve got these trained to pack. A lot of llamas can carry 80 pounds, and some can do 100, but that’s quite a bit.”

As he spoke, Fant fitted a pair of llamas with rigid pack frames, then soft-sided packs. He, his wife, Phyllis, and about a dozen other people then led llamas across the rugged, red countryside.

Lauren Sill, of rural Hutchinson, was in the lead with Paco, one of her 10 llamas. She described the pack trial as a qualifying event where llamas compete against a standard rather than each other. Once they pass required tasks, pertaining to things like maneuvering obstacles, endurance and elevation climbs, llamas can move up to another classification.

All 13 llamas completed the five-plus mile course. Nobody was surprised.

Sill annually takes her string of llamas to the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming for deep wilderness camping.

“One of the reasons llamas interested me was because of my (bad) knees, and they would be a way for me to access areas where I like to backpack,” she said. “They have soft pads on their feet with two toe nails. They’re very easy on trails and don’t contribute much to erosion.”

Fant sometimes takes his llamas into the Arkansas Ozarks.

“They’re so sure-footed,” he said. “Because of their feet they can go anywhere a goat can go. I know they can go places we can’t get to.”

Trial participants agreed that few people are now raising the creatures for the money.

“Twenty years ago people about had to mortgage their house to buy some llamas. Some sold for $10,000,” Fant said. “Now, most are $500 to $1,000.”

Some in attendance at the recent trial were given llamas by others who no longer wanted the expense, or trouble, of keeping the animals.

Fant said he appreciates the versatility of llamas, adding that some are used as guard animals to keep coyotes and other predators away from sheep and goats. Their wool-like hair also can be sold, though most llama shearing is done to help the animals keep cool when the weather is warm.

Pack animals can work from about 4 years of age until they’re about 20 years old. Pack training begins when they’re only a few months old. They learn quickly.

“Sometimes you can show a llama something two or three times within a day or two, then come back a year later and they’ll probably remember it,” said Phyllis Fant. “They’re so much more affectionate than most animals, and they all have their own unique personality.”

Nathan Abel, of Liberal, grew up exposed to all kinds of livestock. He and his wife, Christina, decided to focus on raising llamas. The main reason is because the animals can easily be handled by their young sons, Christian and Malachi.

“To me llamas are a lot more attentive,” he said. “They’re very social and easy for our kids to work with. Nobody ever gets hurt. It’s all fun.”

He scoffed at the popular notion that llamas, especially those trained by people, are mean and spit. For proof, he suggested strangers walk up and pet all llamas in the pack line. No spits, kicks or even nervous animals.

The Abels said they participate in pack trials because it’s something the entire family can enjoy.

“This gives us a chance to just get out someplace where it’s wild and spend time as a family,” Abel said. “It seems like all the llama people we meet are really nice, and really supportive and help each other.”

You spend much time around these guys and you get llama fever.

Phyllis Fant, llama owner

Phyllis Fant said she made the seven-hour drive to the trial because it simply gave her something else to do with her llamas.

“You spend much time around these guys and you get llama fever,” she said. “You about can’t help but fall in love with them, they’re so much fun.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

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