Posted: September 28, 2014, 10:20 p.m. EDT
Rabbits speeding through a "course” of jumps like mini show horses? It happens. Yes, rabbits have been hopping since as long as there have been rabbits, but in the 1970s the Swedish turned rabbit hopping into a sport modeled after equestrian jumping. It spread to other countries across Europe, and rabbit hopping organizations formed to standardize it.
History Of U.S. Hopping
In 2001, rabbit hopping arrived in the United States when rabbit enthusiast Linda Hoover of Oregon formed the Rabbit Hopping Organization of America. She received guidance from Aase Bjerner of Denmark, who started her rabbits in what is called Kaninhop there in 1993. Rabbit hopping has popped up across the United States at 4-H events, fairs and other events since then. In 2002, National Geographic News ran an article about it. In 2011, it was featured on an episode of CBS’s reality show The Amazing Race when contestants in Denmark faced a challenge involving rabbit hopping.
Monica Gray, vice president of the American Hopping Association for Rabbits and Cavies — cavies is another name for guinea pigs — (AHARC), said that in the United States some confusion arose regarding hopping because different people ran events/demos differently. In fact, some developed a new sport entirely that is called rabbit agility. A key difference between rabbit hopping and rabbit agility is that rabbit agility includes more obstacles, such as those seen in dog agility.
"Another difference between rabbit hopping and rabbit agility is that rabbit hopping is almost always done with a harness and leash on the rabbit, and agility may or may not be done on leash,” Gray said. "The only exception to this is when the high jump or long jump is used — it would be the only piece of equipment on the course — the leash is optional.”
Gray said that Joan Knoebel of Iowa Hopping held the first national rabbit hopping contest at the 2011 American Rabbit Breeders Association’s (ARBA) annual convention, which took place in Indianapolis that year. Knoebel is president of the AHARC.
Knoebel and her daughter, Cassandra Brustkern, have done numerous demonstrations of rabbit hopping over the past several years. "Each year and every time we get someone excited about the performance sports has been a memorable experience,” Knoebel said.
Knoebel and her daughter were guest speakers at the 2012 Rabbit Con that took place in Wichita, Kansas, concurrent with the ARBA convention that year. Brustkern appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America news show and on Nickelodeon network’s Figure It Out game show. She has also been featured in local media, including news, radio and newspapers. An Internet search reveals video of Good Morning America’s Ron Claiborne participating in the 2013 rabbit hopping event at the ARBA convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Brustkern loaned her rabbit Dash to Claiborne for the event.
While Knoebel and her daughter were doing their demonstrations, Gray was growing the sport, too, with her club, PawPrints 4-H Club.
"As a 4-H club, the youth in the club did a lot of research about the history of rabbit hopping and the difference between hopping and agility,” Gray said.
"We started out that first year with five members. In 2013 our club had grown to nearly 25 members. We have done demonstrations all over New Jersey and even traveled to Rhode Island last year to demonstrate hopping at a fair.”
Gray and her daughter, Elizabeth Gray, were in charge of rabbit hopping contests for the past three years at the Pennsylvania State Rabbit Breeders Association convention, and they also ran the event when the national ARBA convention came to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2013.
In 2012, AHARC applied for an ARBA charter. "By doing so the hope was to come up with national rules and regulations regarding equipment used, types of equipment and show rules,” Gray said. "These rules have the safety and welfare of the rabbit in mind at all times.”
ARBA granted AHARC the charter as the national specialty club in 2013. Gray said AHARC is working with a liaison at ARBA to develop a guidebook for rabbit and cavy hopping. "Within the ARBA organization there are many veterinarians who have been consulted about rabbit and cavy (guinea pig) health and safety,” Gray said. "It is hoped that this guidebook will be available to members in the near future.”
© Courtesy Joan Knoebel
Rabbits are never forced to hop and their safety is always more important than anything else.
Honing The Hop
Both Knoebel and Gray stress that safety is the most important aspect of hopping. The AHARC Code of Conduct includes numerous rules about the welfare and care of the animals. This addresses concerns some people have raised about the well-being of the rabbit or guinea pig athletes. "Everything we do is with the safety of the rabbit or cavy in mind, and that is the paramount in everything we do,” Knoebel said. "We stress what is acceptable for our equipment and teaching others the sport.”
Gray said that at a demonstration her club did in New Jersey in 2013, she struck up a conversation with someone in the audience. "It turned out that the person I was speaking to was a member of the House Rabbit Society,” Gray said. "They told me they had come expecting to see rabbits being made to perform, and that simply was not the case. The kids took the cues from the rabbits.”
Gray believes rabbit hopping promotes interaction and develops a bond between trainer and rabbit while doing a fun sport. "Training is done so the rabbit is not frightened, is allowed to exercise, and gets much more attention and human interaction than sitting in a cage all day,” she said. "The kids in our club not only learn how to hop their animals, they also learn about the health and care that is required by their furry friend.”
Getting the proper training and equipment are keys to the success of hopping. Gray said finding the right type of harness is critical. "Wanting to find the safest type of harness we searched far and wide and did find some kitten harnesses that were the H-type that are required in Europe,” Gray said. "The problem with these harnesses was that the part that the leash clipped onto was in the middle of the back strap, and according to our European friends the clip needed to go at or behind the belly strap.
Also the harnesses made for cats and dogs have a strap on the back that is too long for a rabbit.” For Gray, the solution was to make their own harnesses.
Knoebel and Brustkern mentioned the challenge of getting people to use safe equipment and understand the importance of using tried and tested training methods.
"Rabbits are not dogs and most training methods people learn to train a dog with will not work on most rabbits,” Brustkern said. "For the most part rabbits are not food motivated like cats, dogs or cavies. We have found they work best under positive reinforcements and social interactions with the trainer/handler. In the beginning we do put a special treat reward in the rabbits’ or cavies’ area as soon as we take the rabbit or cavy out to train. We do this because it is the last thing the animal associates with us and it is much happier to see us the next time.”
Knoebel and Brustkern build their own jumps and taught themselves how to train the rabbits.
"Through trial and error we figured out what worked for us,” Brustkern said. Their advice for anyone thinking about participating in rabbit or cavy hopping?
Once a rabbit is familiar with the equipment and knows what he is expected to do, real practice can begin.
1. Foster the bond between you and your pet. Your pet must know that you will protect him. What you put into your pet’s training is what you will get back in performance.
2. Adapt to your pet’s personality. "Rabbits can vary just like any other animal in personality and trainability,” Brustkern said. "Some people are very lucky and get a good athlete right from the start and others are not so fortunate. But from experience I can tell you if you are one of the latter, you really learn a lot and can appreciate the amazing athlete you have finally sculpted through your hard work or that natural and amazing athlete.”
3. Get a rabbit or guinea pig because you want to share your life with one, not because you simply want to participate in hopping. "Rabbits and cavies can live a long time, not to mention they can be very territorial about who is in their space,” Brustkern said.
© Courtesy Joan Knoebel
Both the rabbit and the owner go into training; it is a team effort.
Finding The Fun
What’s the best thing about rabbit hopping? "Seeing the moment when the light bulb turns on and you can see the rabbit really getting what you have been teaching it,” Brustkern said. "Also, getting others involved with their rabbits. The performance sports are a fun way to stimulate your rabbit when done properly.”
Training goes best when you know what to expect, and Brustkern said training varies depending on the age of the rabbit and his personality. No matter what, the first step is developing a good bond with the rabbit.
"Then we take the rabbits out to various places and get them used to different situations — smells, sounds, and people,” Brustkern said. "Throughout this entire process we monitor the rabbit’s body language. A confident and outgoing rabbit may be unsure but is still interested in what is going on around it. A nervous or unsure rabbit tends to stay in place and look around. It may crawl or slink around on its toes. A scared rabbit tends to flatten out — lay down and yet be as small as it can be with its ears flat against its body and not moving — or it may take off as fast as it can trying to get away from the situation.
Brustkern said the rabbit is given lots of attention during training. If the rabbit appears nervous or scared, training is taken back to familiar surroundings to improve the bond. The ARC website has more information and tips out training.
Demos & More
Gray said that the hopping demonstration at the ARBA convention in Harrisburg went well. Rabbit breeds participating included Mini Rex, Mini Satin, Mini Lop, Holland Lop, Tan, Rhinelander, English Spot, Himalayan, Britannia Petite and more.
"The exhibitors should be commended for the training they put into their athletes,” Gray said. The event had 55 entries and two judges, Knoebel and Susie Dapper. Dapper is an ARBA judge and has experience judging hopping events. The demonstration included several events: a straight-line course of eight jumps, a high jump with a single hurdle and a team relay.
"The scoring for hopping is done first by the number of faults — an obstacle not completed is a fault, as well as going off the course, inappropriate handling, and going the wrong way on the course,” Gray said. "If there is a tie on the number of faults the exhibitor with the faster time prevails.”
A competition under ARBA rules is planned for the 2014 ARBA convention taking place in Fort Worth, Texas, November 1 to 5. Other hopping events may happen throughout 2014, but none are officially endorsed or sanctioned by AHARC yet. "Until the guidebook is published and the rules are set in stone it would be impossible to do so,” Gray said. "Many local clubs exist throughout the United States, and the hopping events vary from event to event.”
AHARC hopes to start sanctioning events by 2015, if not before. Join AHARC or watch its website for updates.
This article was originally published in the 2014 issue of Rabbits USA magazine.
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