Fleece, humming, superfine fiber: Inside the world of competitive alpaca shows

Ryan Williams and his alpaca, Bear, stood side by side at the opening of the arena at the National Western Stock Show, waiting for their opportunity to impress.

Bear, a 2-year-old old alpaca with cashmere-soft white fleece and spots of brown, fidgeted, his eyes darting around the cavernous space, which on Saturday was filled with alpacas and llamas of all shapes and sizes — the competition.

“He’s nervous,” Williams said.

Finally, the judge called the alpacas and their owner into the arena. It’s showtime.

Welcome to life at the alpaca halter show, one of many events held during the National Western Stock Show. Breeders and livestock owners from Colorado and beyond arrived Saturday in cowboy boots and hats to showcase their alpacas to a festive crowd.

So, many may wonder: What exactly is an alpaca halter show?

Alpacas are in Stadium Arena of ...
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Alpacas are in Stadium Arena of National Western Stock Show. Jan. 12, 2019.

Enter legendary judge Sharon Loner.

Microphone in hand, she explained to the hearty crowd what she would be looking for in a champion alpaca.

The animals are judged on two sets of criteria.

“Fifty percent is confirmation,” Loner said. “That means body type, correct proportions. I’m looking for a lack of skeletal defects in the body, no crooked teeth or knocked knees.”

Loner strode over to the first contestant, a slightly jumpy brown alpaca. The owner promptly separated the alpaca’s lips to show a set of large white teeth.

“The other 50 percent is about the fleece,” she explained.

On each alpaca, Loner grabbed a chunk of fleece in the animal’s midsection. She separated the fibers, getting a look at the base near the skin.

“I’m looking for uniformity of color and length, as well as the softness,” Loner said.

About 120 alpacas showed up to the show on Saturday afternoon, competing in various fields. Each color, age and gender had its own competition. Afterward, the winners of each color were judged against each other, regardless of age.

Lilly Cline, 9, of Littleton, right, ...
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Lilly Cline, 9, of Littleton, right, and her sister Ella, 7, are in the Stadium Arena of National Western Stock Show with their llamas for pack llamas competition. Jan. 12, 2019.

Loner ordered the grey yearlings — those between 1 and 2 years old — into their finishing places.

“First place, walk it out!” Loner said, as the winning alpaca strutted its stuff. The crowd erupted.

“Well-designed,” Loner said as the champ took his victory lap. “Correct in proportions — look how smooth that walk is!”

The second-place alpaca took a walk-about next.

“This boy is super fine!” Loner said, without a hint of irony (fine fleece is quite important).

Ann Danielson greeted the top two winners as they came out of the ring. Both alpacas are hers: Grady and Shady. Grady, she said, is short for “OMG … he’s so great!”

“Feels great to win,” she said, as Shady hummed noisily. “It’s pretty good competition.”

Danielson bought her first alpaca in 2005. She grew up on a farm and has taken to the shows, winning multiple first-place prizes over the years with a variety of alpacas.

A veteran of the stock show, Danielson has the outfit down pat, the full alpaca wardrobe: silver alpaca earrings, an alpaca bracelet, alpaca ring, and a cowboy made out of — that’s right — alpaca fleece.

“Even my underwear has alpacas on them!” she said.

As the competition got underway for other alpaca divisions, Danielson chatted with fellow owners.

“Alpaca breeders are great,” Danielson said. “It’s such a good group of people. Some of them have become dear friends. I love these shows for the social aspect.”

On the other side of the arena Saturday afternoon, llamas paraded through various obstacles.

As Danielson heard during Thursday’s parade through downtown Denver, many people confuse alpacas with their larger cousin. They do have similarities, but there are some key differences. Alpacas are about one-third the size of llamas, weighing about 150 pounds. Llamas, on the other hand, can weigh 300 to 500 pounds. Llamas also are known for their banana ears, whereas alpacas’ are more spear-shaped.

“Llamas are more pack animals,” Loner said. “They’re beasts of burden.”

Alpacas, she said, “are more like sheep.”

Both animals are “what you call browsers,” said Judy Glaser, the stock show’s superintendent of llamas. “They don’t destroy a pasture. They’re very environmentally friendly, and they go to the bathroom in one place!”

Both animals provide fleece that can be used for yarn, scarves, beanies and other soft apparel.

People are more familiar with llamas because they’ve been in the U.S. far longer than their smaller cousins. Alpacas were first imported in the early 1990s from Peru. Colorado is an ideal climate for them because, like Peru, it has low humidity and high altitude, Loner said.

Loner has been judging competitions since the early 2000s. The state of the alpacas, she said, is as good as ever.

“I love it,” she said. “There’s a real satisfaction of seeing improvement of the breed from where we were 25 years ago. Back then you weren’t sure if you were looking an alpaca or a llama!

“The bar has been raised really high.”

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