As a child, I wanted a horse. I don’t mean casually or intermittently the way many little girls want a horse. I was obsessed. From the age of eight, my life revolved around horses. My favorite day of the week was whatever day I had a riding lesson, and while other little girls had bedrooms plastered with photos of heart-throbs, my was plastered with posters of ponies.
My parents would entertain the idea of a horse for a moment or two, but, as with most people, they always came back to the expense involved in keeping a horse. I remember when I was around twelve, at Christmastime, just when I thought I was making headway on the horse front, my uncle had a conversation with my mother that drilled the final nail in my imaginary horse’s coffin. (For this to make any sense, you need to know that my uncle was a horse trainer once upon a time.)
Mom: “She’s doing really well in lessons. You should see her ride sometime. The trainer says that the next step is a horse of her own.”
(I, of course, was grinning ear to ear with pride, even though the adults were doing that thing that adults do where they talk about you like you aren’t there.)
Uncle: “Oh Lord. Don’t do that. What is she, twelve? When she turns thirteen, she’ll get interested in boys and forget all about horses. I’ve seen it happen a million times.”
My mom sort of glanced at me and nodded, accepting his advice.
And my grin failed.
The truth is, I never did “forget about horses” or get obsessed with boys in the way he predicted. (I’m that freak who didn’t date all through high school and college so that I could focus on my studies…yup…that girl.) I ended up working for the llama ranch eventually, and, when my dad’s business hit a rough patch, I stopped taking riding lessons for a while. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t get me a horse, because during that year, when finances tightened up so much, I’m not sure we would have been able to keep it. And that would have broken my heart.
Instead, at 19, I bought my first llama. I think I kind of thought then that the horse dream was dead…or at least on hold until I was much, much older. But then, when I was 23, I finally met that boy that everyone had been warning my mother about since I was 13 (the one who would inevitably make me forget about horses). Turns out, he had a horse…
Some of you have expressed interest in learning about the critters, so I decided to start with the one who, for me, really started all of this crazy. Minnett Mann, my first gelding, is, and always has been, my sweet boy. I wrote the following during graduate school, about five years ago.
Just a Minnett
I’ve never been good at goodbyes, and, in August of 2005, when I stood at the gate of the Illinois State Fair cattle ring, waiting to show my favorite llama for what was supposed to be the last time, it felt far too much like a goodbye. He was four, considered an “adult male,” and was misbehaving. I was nineteen, barely an adult myself, and trying very hard not to cry. I knew that I would never walk into the show ring with Minnett again. I was going away for three months, and he would be sold before I came home.
EDR Chilean Mystic’s Minnett Mann was the first newborn cria (baby llama) that I ever saw. He was born the first spring that I worked at the llama ranch, making his appearance only a few months after I was hired. His birth, I am told, took a grand total of fifteen minutes, a brisk entry even by livestock standards. When I first saw him I was instantly taken by his good looks, his wool the color of dark chocolate except for his white chin and bangs. His legs had the “too long” look of a newborn foal or calf. Still, despite his spindly, shaky legs, he had a unique presence about him from his earliest moments. He was ostentatious enough to demand that he be taken seriously within the herd from a young age; his dam’s (mother’s) place in the herd hierarchy was high enough that he could get away with it.
Minnett matured enough to show at about the same time that I started to become comfortable at the art of showing llamas. We learned together, bonding in a way that few people will ever really experience. In the first two years, he cemented a place in my heart. Though I didn’t own him, even L, my boss and his owner, began to refer to him as my llama.
L walked up to us as we were preparing to enter. She is the sort of individual who no one will ever think to describe as “old,” no matter how many years she lives. I feel fortunate to say that, aside from my parents and grandparents, she has had more impact on my life than anyone else I can think of. It was L who I ran to when I had a fight with my mom. She was the one who I told when I had a crush. She was the one I talked with about arguments with my best friend. She was sometimes the only adult in my life who didn’t try to keep me from growing up. Knowing me as well as she did, knowing the loss I was already starting to feel, she was also trying to suppress tears.
My attempt to steer the conversation away from the goodbye that was pressing in on me from all directions was fairly transparent. I don’t remember what I started talking about with her, but it didn’t fool anyone, least of all L. Drawing a deep breath in, she cut through my pretense, catching me off-guard.
“I can sell him to you as a gelding for $300, but that’s the best I can do.”
With that, she turned on her heel and walked away.
It was as if someone had given me my floor back. Minnett’s true value probably fell between $1,500 and $2,000. L was offering him at $300 because it was me. Turning to Anna, another worker at EDR, I asked if she wanted to buy half a llama. A whirlwind couple of weeks later, we owned him.
Minnett is not “easy.” He had been misbehaving himself when she offered to sell him to me. At that point in his life, misbehaving was his normal state of being. It hadn’t always been like that.
When he was young, he was EDR’s primary Public Relations animal. From visiting nursing home residents when he was barely old enough to show, walking into their rooms or up to their wheelchairs without a second thought, to meeting and greeting children who were visiting the farm, he was up for anything.
When he was two and his hormones kicked in high gear, he became increasingly difficult to control. When he became a breeder, he joined the ranks of the untrustworthy. I remember one day, a while before I bought him, when he charged one of my co-workers. When she entered his stall and tried to kick him out, he tried to knock her over. That sort of aggression is a power play. He was telling her that he outranked her; that he would win in a fight. It’s exactly the sort of aggression that breeders and trainers cannot tolerate. When 350 pound animals decide to push, you have to push back. Harder.
Hierarchy in the herd-animal world is largely psychological. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. It would be illogical for herd animals to waste precious energy infighting when they may have to use that same energy to defend their herd. When humans deal with these animals, this psychological rationale works in our favor: we cannot win in a physical fight, but we can psychologically establish dominance. Llamas’ muscle is hugely disproportionate to their mass: they are far stronger than they look. (In fact, they are stronger, per pound, than a horse.) If you cannot trust that your animal will not use his strength against you, you cannot keep him. It’s dangerous for everyone involved. Luckily, few of them ever challenge the hierarchy we set when they are young. Those who do must be swiftly dealt with.
When she told me what happened, I had to do something fast. Minnett was my baby, and allowing his future to fall prey to his idiot hormones was out of the question. My course of action was crystal clear and clearly stupid: if he wanted a fight, if he wanted to challenge someone, it was damn sure going to be me.
When I entered his stall, my jaw set in concentration, he seemed surprised. When I entered his stall, my stomach in knots over what I had to do, he barely gave me a second thought. He had no real interest in challenging me. His attitude shifted when I set about finishing what my coworker had tried to start. I pushed him, trying to get him out of the stall. Most animals will accept this behavior, docilely walking out without pause. He got angry.
Still effectively glued in place, he put his ears back and began to cluck at me, warning me that he had every intention of spitting. I refused to be warned and pushed again. He pushed back, not coming after me like he had come after her, but feeling me out.
It was enough. I began to slam my knees into his chest, one after another. The knees to the chest imitate the way llamas fight: they run, crashing into one another chest to chest. There is far more power in their crashing than there was in my kneeing; I knew that I almost couldn’t produce enough power to phase him, let alone hurt him, but the action killed me nonetheless.
Tears stung my eyes. I knew that if he chose to rear up and throw his whole weight against me, I would be hurt. I also knew that if he pulled that dominant shit against another human, someone less likely to understand and more likely to sue, he would probably be gone, sent to a refuge in Montana where he wouldn’t pose a threat to people.
The altercation ended swiftly. Even though I have always believed that Minnett stands among the few llamas who understand how big they are, he never really used his size against me. It was not long before he gave up. Hierarchy is psychological, and I refused to be dominated.
When I chose to buy him, it hardly mattered to me that he was difficult. I didn’t see him that way, even though a mild belligerence was an undeniable part of his personality at the time. I bought him because I couldn’t stand to see him sold somewhere else. I couldn’t handle saying goodbye, even if he did act like a moron most of the time. Gelding him helped, calming him down.
Now, three years later, he is still mellowing. Sometimes I think that he is daily reaching backwards, becoming, again, the gentle young animal that he once was. For me, now, he usually behaves perfectly. At this point, I can release his leadline, swinging it over his shoulders or stuffing the end of it in my pocket, and still depend upon him to walk beside me. He would all but follow me through fire, and he would think seriously about the fire.
Still, when you get right down to it, his behavior isn’t mine to dictate, as much as I would like to believe that it is. In reality, training only takes you so far; at some point, animals’ actions are about what they want. Minnett is slowly becoming the animal that he was before the hormones, and I have little to do with it. I see that more and more clearly as time passes. This summer, behaving better than ever and enjoying it, he blew me away.
At first he was anxious, pacing his stall and trying to draw the attention of the visitors. His interest in them was evident; when he chose to stand still, it was so that he could inspect them, giving “kisses” (softly sniffing their faces) when they were close enough. It thrilled him when individuals diverted their attention to him, rather than his counterparts in the center of the barn. He wanted out of his stall; that much was plain.
At seven years old, Minnett had long since ceased to be our PR animal, but, that day, he was campaigning for his former position with gusto.
I was holding the leadline of another animal, Minnett’s half-brother, Jackpot, I had a suspicion that Minnett, were he brought out, would do very well. He was enthralled with the visitors, and had already claimed a few votes for “favorite” from over the stall door. Jackpot, on the other hand, was frightened of the new people. His dancing steps betrayed his uncertainty, and his attempts to back away decided the issue for me. I returned him to his stall in favor of his brother. Minnett seemed well-aware of my intentions, walking up to me and sticking his nose through his halter, as if to hurry the process.
I walked with him to the center of the barn, and we took our place next to L and Kniggett. Despite the instinct that told me he would do well, that he wanted to be out there, I found myself a little nervous. There was a lot about this group that could scare him.
This was not our typical tourist group. Of the individuals in attendance, half had severe physical or mental disabilities. Minnett’s audience was largely wheelchair bound, and it was difficult for some of them understand that llamas don’t like sudden, loud noises, or that they preferred being petted on the neck to being petted on their faces. This sort of audience is the reason we want our PR animals to be bomb-proof, afraid of nothing. I probably held my breath for a moment as the first individual, a young man who walked up without the aid of a walker, approached Minnett. I needn’t have worried.
I believe that most animals are more sensitive and kind than we give them credit for, easily more sensitive and kind than most people. Time and again, I have seen animals intuitively give love and affection where it is needed most. In nursing homes, I have watched a young animal take an interest in an older woman who, previously, had been passing her day starring out her window. Some older individuals, especially those who grew up and lived on farms, seem to wake up when the llamas come to see them. When the animals walk up to them, timid perhaps, but not afraid, smiles become infectious. Petting their necks and cooing to them about how pretty they are or how sweet, conversation somehow seems two-sided, the llama’s half silent, but no less salient. It doesn’t surprise me that the Incas nicknamed llamas “the silent brothers” when they domesticated them more than 4,000 years ago.
I looked from Kniggett, a red and white gelding with the calmest temperament I have ever come across, to my Minnett Mann, whose behavior has more than once left something to be desired. Minnett was undeniably the more assertive of the two animals. He was older, larger, and generally more set upon getting his way. Kniggett, being his usual, wonderful self, stood like a rock and allowed himself to be petted and prodded in whatever fashion necessary.
But Minnett, from the moment that first individual approached, entered a state of bliss. His behavior was more than Kniggett’s quiet, gentle stoicism. It wasn’t a simple acceptance of the individuals around him. It was utter enjoyment. He leaned into their admiration, and gave it right back to them. He hadn’t been that intuitive PR animal for a long time. Watching him, it was like our past was flashing forward into our present. His kisses continued as he greeted the first half of the individuals; after that, he became very interested in the people as a group. His distraction left him less focused, but not less amiable.
By the time the blonde girl came up to him, shuffling, with a steadying arm on her handler, Minnett was no longer as quick to say hello. He was watching everyone, not just the person in front of him. She, however, only had eyes for him. She was enthralled and waiting for him to give her the same attention that he had given her friends.
She looked to me, looked at him, and looked back to me, making “kissy” faces. She wanted Minnett to give her llama kisses like he had everyone else, and she wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. I was puzzled for a moment: it isn’t a behavior I can force. After that second’s pause, I came up with an alternative, and, making sure that she was watching, threw my arms around him in a hug and kissed him. She watched me, and her face lit up. This was a more than acceptable compromise. I released him and watched as she mimicked my movements. Minnett was momentarily surprised, but, once he was aware of what was going on, seemed perfectly content to be held by this small, frail girl. The hug lasted longer than most. Minnett didn’t seem to mind. He gave her exactly what she needed. The smile that crossed her face when she finally did pull away proved that to me.
I put him back in his stall after they left. As anthropomorphic as it sounds, I would swear that, as I removed his halter, hugging him and practically exploding with pride in “my boy,” he had a proud look on his face. He knew how well he had done. I watched him walk down the corridor, towards his field and his herd. He’s always been mine, but I guess I’ve always been his too.
I recently lead another tour around the ranch. I brought them into Minnett’s pasture, not knowing entirely to expect. I never know entirely what to expect. I figured that it was just as likely that he ignore them as anything else. He surprised me again, walking over to them and saying hello, charming as ever with his chocolate brown wool and white facial markings. I suppose he stood there with us for fifteen to twenty minutes, introducing himself as I answered questions. The tour group looked at him with interest, seeing a friendly large animal, one who undoubtedly left an impression. I looked at him too, but I saw seven years, the small, chocolate colored cria that captured my heart, the petulant adolescent male that I fought, the adult gelding whose gentleness had had such an effect upon a very special audience, and a connection that I still can’t explain.
Over four thousand years ago, one of the Incas deemed llamas their “silent brothers.” I wonder if that wordsmith had a Minnett.