Halter training a camel is very similar to halter training a horse.
The difference is that the camel is less reactive and responsive than a horse,
has a snakier neck, and is easier to bribe with food than a horse! If you haven't
had much experience in working with horses or camels, then I would recommend
enlisting the help of a professional horse trainer, preferably one who is into
"natural horsemanship" and familiar with training young colts. These trainers
are a wonderful resource. They are present in almost every town; just start
asking around the horse community (owners, farms, veterinarians, feed stores,
horseshoers) in your area and see who gets consistent recommendations.
Although the trainer most certainly won't have camel experience, the basic
theories are the same. The trainer will quickly catch on to the nuances of
camel behavior, will be a great source of information for you, and will be able
to help you in the future with any other training. (However, when it comes to
training the camel to ride, there are a few distinct differences from horses.
Have your trainer contact me). Be sure to use a trainer who has a reputation
for being "quiet and patient" instead of rough; camels have a poor tolerance
for rough treatment if it is inappropriate or unfair.
If you want to do the training yourself, where you starts depends on how
your camel is at this time. Will she freely come up to you? Is she friendly or shy?
Will she eat grain out of a pan while you hold it? Does she show any aggression
towards you? Is she pushy or flighty or a total pet?
I usually start by holding out a shallow pan of grain and letting the camel
eat it while I touch her head and upper neck all over. I would do this until she
handles it well; on a really goofy camel this may take several weeks of daily or
twice-daily lessons. Then start draping a rope over her neck while she eats.
If she wants to step away, that's fine; just let her slide out from under the rope.
She'll come back for more grain and eventually will be comfortable with the rope.
Then you can start getting her to put her nose through a halter nosepiece in order
to get to the grain. When she's good with that, start placing the halter strap
behind her ears as if you were going to buckle or tie it. Do not fasten it up
until she is good and comfortable (at this point you may need someone else to
hold the grain pan; it might take her a few tries to get used to the other person).
Again, if she pulls away, just let her go. If she's too spooky, then go back and
repeat the previous steps. Multiple small lessons are the most effective -- even
if it's just a few minutes per day.
Practice putting the halter off and on a number of times without any pressure
on it; she needs to be completely comfortable with the halter on before you start
pulling on it. A word of caution -- NEVER leave the halter on unless you are directly
working with her. A left-on halter is a tragic and horribly painful way for a camel
to hang and kill herself. Furthermore, repeatedly putting the halter on is great
practice and will just get her more used to having her head handled.
Once you are both confident with the halter on and fastened, go ahead and attach
the lead rope. Start pulling the rope gently to one side (not forward -- this comes last).
If, after a few seconds of very light pressure, she doesn't respond, pull a little harder.
Give her a few seconds at that pressure. If still no response, pull harder still!
The second -- or better yet, the SPLIT SECOND she responds slightly
(i.e. just turning her head towards the pressure) -- RELEASE the pressure.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING! If she pulls against the pressure, just hang on and be strong
(but DON'T TIE)! Hold your hand still; it should be just like she is pulling against
herself and eventually she will get tired of it. The moment she relaxes -- RELEASE!
If she really fights or gets loose, don't worry about it, just start over.
Try not to get into a big battle; everything should just be low key and quiet while
she is learning to respond to pressure. At first her survival instincts may tell her
to fight; your job is to teach her in small enough increments that she gets "habituated"
to each new step and never feels threatened or the need to fight.
The RELEASE OF PRESSURE is the REWARD, and immediately reward her with a release
of pressure every time she shows you the "smallest change or the slightest try."
But gradually ask for more. Once she freely gives you a little turn of the head,
ask for a bigger one. Then ask for the neck to move, and eventually for a shift
of weight (remember -- just to the side, not forward at this stage).
Then ask for one front leg to move, then both front legs, and eventually for a full turn.
In the middle of the process things might go like this: you pull lightly to
the side with the lead rope -- nothing happens. Pull harder -- head turns -- release!
Pull lightly -- head and neck turns -- release! Pull lightly with neck turned -- nothing
happens -- pull harder -- nothing happens -- camel shifts her weight -- release!
Head goes back straight. Pull lightly -- head turns for a second -- release for a moment,
then ask for more, pulling lightly -- neck turns -- release for an instant -- light
pressure -- weight shifts -- release for just an instant -- pull lightly -- neck
braces -- pull harder -- she pulls against you -- hold the pressure against her -- she
relaxes with neck bent -- release for a moment but keep neck turned -- ask again
with light pressure -- weight shifts and leg lifts -- release! Etc, Etc...
Going through these steps might take several sessions, and should be repeated
often. EACH AND EVERY TIME you ask the camel to give to pressure (i.e., each
individual "step" you take in getting the head to turn or the legs to move), always
start with the LIGHTEST amount of pressure possible. GRADUALLY apply INCREASING LEVELS
of pressure until she responds. This might mean SEVERAL SECONDS at each level of pressure.
Use "as much pressure as necessary but as little as possible" to ask for each specific move.
This might be anywhere from the softest touch to using all the strength you have.
Always apply the soft touch first, then harder, then harder, until she responds,
then release! Then continue to the next step, starting soft, etc. If you apply pressure
through INCREASING LEVELS and release the INSTANT she gives, she will learn to be light
and responsive. If you haul hard on her all the time and don't reward her with release
when she gives, she will learn to be hard and unresponsive ("you can't train a camel
at a shout and expect it to respond at a whisper.") Don't be discouraged; the foundation
you are laying now will last the camel a lifetime and should be done right! The timing
and understanding of "pressure and release" is where a professional horse trainer may
really be able to help you. The timing is more difficult than it sounds -- some
trainers spend years learning "feel and timing."
Practice turning both ways. When she is fully comfortable going in both directions,
you can ask her to go forward at an angle. Combine a little of a turn with a little
forward motion. Go through all the same steps. If she tries to pull back against you,
hold on! The instant she relaxes her pull, release! Ask for a little more each time.
Gradually go straighter until she will move straight forward. At first she might
resist going forward -- sometimes you will have to "break her feet free" by moving
her to the side and straightening her up once she starts walking. Some camels have
a lot of "built in resistance" and will not want to walk forward unless someone is
behind them "pushing" with just their presence or the light touch of a crop
(use a long one so you are not in the line of fire!). The camel quickly learns
that in moving forward she can earn a release from pressure.
Once she is completely comfortable leading, you can teach her to back up using
the same principles. Only when she is fully trained to lead and understands how she
needs to respond to pressure should she be tied up.
There are many different effective ways to train a camel to lead, but this
method will train your camel to lead in a light and responsive manner. It will be
a positive experience for you both, and will teach you as well as the camel about
pressure, release, and timing.
A few notes. Although most people use the nylon flat web halters on camels,
it is better to use the round rope "string" halters in the initial training process.
A rope halter will communicate pressure to the animal better, while the flat one
invites the camel to lean on it. The rope halters are available at equine tack stores.
Ask them to show you how to tie the halter knot (if you do it wrong it may come loose
or be more difficult to untie). Once the camel is well halter trained with the round
rope halter, she could be graduated to the use of the flat halter-chain combination
(use the chain while leading but NEVER tie the camel up with it!). If she was going
to be used extensively with the public or for trail riding, she could graduate to
the nose peg for an even lighter and finer response.
Some purist trainers may frown on the use of food in training camels.
My attitude is WHATEVER WORKS! Food is an effective and powerful source of reward,
gratification, and comfort to the animal. However, I never allow the camel to get pushy with food.
Before I ever start to halter train a camel, (or after if she is already halter trained)
I will be sure she understands the command "get back." I never want to be in an
enclosure with any large animal unless they know to respect my space. Camels can
be especially pushy and bouncy, and the bottle-fed ones in particular may not
understand respect. To train this (the younger the better), go in the pen with a
loose camel (assuming she's not outright dangerous) carrying a strong crop at
least three feet long. Say, "get back" in an authoritative manner, adopt a commanding
posture, and touch the camel's chest with the crop. If she doesn't move, tap lightly.
If she still doesn't move, give her a smart pop with the whip on the chest.
Keep it up until she steps back, then immediately reward her by dropping your arm,
changing your aggressive posture to an accepting one, and using a soothing voice
("good girl"). If she runs off, invite her to come back, using food if necessary.
Stand quietly with her for a minute, then ask her to "get back" again, repeating
the entire process. You can reward her with the food after she responds to your
command but don't let her come up to it as long as you are telling her to "get back."
When she stays back long enough, invite her to come in to the food by softening your
posture, taking a step back, and saying "come" or "OK" in a soothing voice.
Eventually she will back up with just the voice command, or you can combine it
with an arm gesture (such as abruptly extending your raised arm and hand at her
with a pointed forefinger as if you were trying to "tell her off"). Any time I
need to go into a camel's enclosure to feed her, I always make her "get back"
away from me before I will put down the hay or grain. I feel like this is extremely
important -- it keeps the camel from mugging me and reinforces respect, which in turn fosters safety.
If you are a little nervous being in the pen with the camel, you can do the
first part of the halter training (all the steps up until when the halter is buckled
or tied on the head) while she is extending her neck over a fence panel or gate.
Once you are ready to apply pressure to the lead rope, you will need to go into the pen with her.
If you are still nervous, get a professional horse trainer to help you.
Fear will cloud your judgment and interfere with the camel's learning;
pushing yourself through fear without gaining knowledge won't help either you or the animal.
On the other hand, learning with a professional to guide you can be very educational and rewarding.
If you plan on having camels for any length of time, maybe this will be part of
an exciting and gratifying journey into the lifelong process of learning more about training.
"It's what you learn after you know it all that's important."
After your camel is halter trained, you could go on to do some other really fun ground work.
Like getting her to move her shoulder and front end away from you with the lightest
touch of your hand, or getting her to step her hindquarters over with just a word.
Or having her turn around, back up, come forward, or lay down with just hand signals.
And with nothing on her head.
But that's another story.
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