7. The Back

A strong back is essential in a pack llama and generally speaking, short backs are strong backs. Think of a long unsupported roof span with a heavy snow load.

The actual back length is the distance between the withers (highest point of the shoulder, or shoulder blades) and the point of the hip, just above the lumbo-sacral joint. A long sloping (as opposed to short, steep) hip and shoulder may give the appearance of a long back, but in fact such an animal has a long body – not the same thing at all. Body length is measured from the point of the buttocks to the point of the shoulder. The first clue to a long back is a long ground distance from front feet to back feet –a long ‘wheel base’.

This boy below has a long sloping (as opposed to short, steep) hip and shoulder, giving him a long overall body length. His actual back is relatively short.

A llama with a long back may be lacking in strength. The photo below shows a long-backed llama. Look closely and you will see that she is long in the area of the loin (from the last rib to the point of the hip), and she has a long ‘wheel base’ when compared to the llama above. This llama is quite athletic but her stamina and weight-bearing capacity are probably limited.

This conformational trait leads to a loss of the power being generated by the hindquarters. In a short-backed llama this power is directly transmitted through the lumbo-sacral joint and structures of the back (think of the drive train in a vehicle) to the front quarters. In a long-backed llama, much of the power is lost in the weak coupling of the loin. A strong, flexible lumbo-sacral joint is essential in the working llama.

A good back will also be relatively A-shaped in cross section – with a spine that is easily felt and a good slope down from each side. Llamas with flat backs in cross-section (from overweight, different muscling or with more curvature to the ribs) are hard to fit with a packsaddle. Girths (cinches) need to be done up very tightly to hold the load in place and this is tiring to the llama. A good back holds a saddle well. One does have to be careful though, to ensure there is ample clearance between the spine and the saddle tree on a sharp-spined llama. A sway back or a roach (slight upward curve) back is undesirable. The sway back tends to be weak in the middle, and saddles tend to slide forward on roach backed llamas.

Hip height and wither height should be relatively equal. It is more common for llamas to be slightly higher in the hips but again, loads have to be well-secured to prevent them from sliding forward over the shoulders. The rare llama with a shoulder higher than the hip is very desirable and seems to carry a pack well with little need for crupper or breeching. Much more relaxing for the llama.

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