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Curious and Keen, but Able Gifted and Talented?

Based on my recent experiment of putting an acrylic mirror in one of the llama field shelters, and being amazed by their reaction to seeing their own reflections (see ‘Conquering the Cave of Imminent Death!’ – February Blog), I had been pondering the question ‘Do my llamas get bored? Would they welcome some additional enrichment in their lives?’

Now we’re not talking about training or grooming! I already know that they enjoy those times, but when they are free to roam their paddocks, grazing grass, browsing shrubs and trees, nibbling nettles, dust-bathing, or simply lounging around on warm sunny days, do they have a secret yearning for something more, something to arouse their curious nature and their keen willingness to try new things?

There are many products on the market to keep horses entertained. Upon reading the product description ‘The ultimate ball to relieve boredom and stress’ I had no option but to invest in a ‘Horseman’s Jolly Ball’. It is made from hard-wearing rubber and has a handle which the horse can use to pick it up. The next addition to my basket was a decahedron horse treat toy, with an inspiring description of being the ultimate twenty-sided equine boredom-beater. One simply fills the ball with treats and sits back to watch their companion animals play and gather rewards along the way – irresistible! I placed 10 or so of the girls’ favourite treats into the ball and listened as it rattled every time it was moved.

With camera at the ready I took my ‘recreational enrichment experiments’ to the paddocks, placed them on the ground and called the llamas in. A few moments later all six galloped in and spotted the new additions to their paddock.

At the start of the experiment, each llama sniffed the purple rubber ball and walked away; it was evident fairly quickly that the idea of picking up this object with their mouth and throwing it around was not at the top of their ‘I really want to do this’ list.

However when they smelled their favourite treats inside the decahedron ball, their response was uncannily different; they quickly honed in to the entrance to the inner ball where the treats were located. Each llama in turn nibbled away at the entrance in an attempt to gain entry to their prize becoming increasingly frustrated that the hole was rigid and un-nibble-able.

One by one, they appeared to realise that the ball wasn’t actually heavy and could be moved by nudging it with their noses. Lila and Lollipop went the extra step by using their chins and feet to move the ball.

To assist the girls in discovering how to release the treats, I rolled the ball around the grassy floor using my foot, hoping they would see my example and imitate it. I then placed a treat under the ball and watched as the ball was nudged aside by an excited llama on the verge of winning the battle. Would they now understand how to reach the treats?

I waited with eager anticipation as my students spent an ever decreasing amount of time focussed on the decahedron ball, wandering off to graze grass which was unmistakeably more accessible.

Undaunted at the girls’ apparent lack of proficiency in emancipating any treats from the ball, and forever the optimist, I decided to move on to the second part of my ‘recreational enrichment experiment’, my inspiration coming from seeing a video clip of a pony who loved chasing a noisy rustling length of plastic sheeting as their owner whisked it away from under them providing much pleasure to the pony and owner alike.

Knowing that llamas are fearful of things dangling around their feet/legs in a snake-like fashion, I decided to opt for a rustle-noised kite rather than a ground based equivalent and I therefore concocted a small kite by tying a length of string to an old carrier bag.

I took the kite to the paddocks and left it lying on the ground to allow the girls to approach and smell it.

Glad of the windy day, I then lifted the string to allow the wind to catch the bag and raise it into the air. I was immediately pleasantly surprised to see the keen interest shown by the llamas; they raced towards the unidentifiable flying object, and stood in awe of it, watching intently as it oscillated gently around at just above their head height. As the wind picked the kite up and bounced it around, the llamas’ interest remained acutely focussed on the swirling patterns and I was surprised at how close they allowed the kite to fly without retreating from it.

That said, a rather large gust of wind was the culprit for the kite suddenly plunging in the direction of the girls, which was presumably a little closer than they had anticipated, and that was the end of that experiment!

So, to answer my initial question ‘Do my llamas get bored? Would they welcome some additional enrichment in their lives?’’

In my opinion they like routine, structure and order in their lives. But they are also incredibly inquisitive and will investigate anything new with genuine curiosity and keenness. They enjoy learning new things in our normal training sessions and I am always amazed at how quickly they will pick up on what it is that you are asking them to do. Similarly, they were certainly eager to invest some time in the decahedron ball and to make attempts at acquiring the treats contained therein. Their initial reaction to the kite was curiosity and had it not suddenly soared towards them at high speed I do believe they would have stuck around to watch its merry dance a little longer.

My girls may not be Able Gifted and Talented, but they display an unfathomable curiousness and an endearing keenness for new experiences, and I will continue to seek out additional possible sources of enrichment for them. If you have had any similar experiences it would be great to hear from you.

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