Best in Hop: The World of Rabbit Show Jumping
Glimmer won't hop. Nose in the air, he sniffs the 2-inch-high pole in front of him. It's much lower than obstacles he's cleared while training at home. Nevertheless, he refuses to budge.
Cassandra Brustkern, his patient 12-year-old trainer, emits a soft "tch tch." Nothing. She bends down to tap his butt lightly. Nothing. Glimmer glances at the 50 or so kids who have come to see him at the Iowa State Fair, but their pleading faces? Nothing.
Shrugging, Cassandra returns Glimmer to his crate. She isn't bothered by his obstinacy. Neither is her mom, Joan Knoebel. "You can't make a rabbit hop," Joan notes.
Can't make a rabbit hop? Isn't hopping, like, the very definition of rabbit-hood?
But we're not talking about your leisurely I'm-off-to-that-dumb-human's-delicious-vegetable-garden-for-the-afternoon-type hopping. No, this is go-for-the-glory hopping, several feet high (the world record is 39.2 inches) or wide, on command and often in front of scrutinizing judges.
Rabbit show jumping, as it's sometimes called (it's apparently also called "rabbit dressage," though Joan and Cassandra laughed at this upper-crust alias), has only taken off in the U.S. in the last decade. And there's nowhere better to spread the word than the Iowa State Fair, which has a long history of introducing its Midwest patrons to new animal experiences.
At the first fair, back in 1854, visitors were awed by an impressive collection of more than 100 varieties of snakes and lizards preserved in alcohol. A 600-pound cow made of butter has been created as a main attraction here since 1911. And Joan and Cassandra's jumpers are in good company at this year's fair, where more than 2000 other rabbits will participate in exhibitions and competitions.
American rabbit competitors are still getting their bunnies into high hopping gear, while in Scandinavia, where the sport originated before becoming popular throughout Europe, rabbits have been in training since the 1970s. Just Google "kaninhop" and watch as your morning goes straight down the rabbit hole of rabbit hopping.
Stateside, rabbit jumping clubs are popping up at local 4-H organizations, from Iowa to Wisconsin to Oregon, and competitions are held at county and state fairs. The American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) is also on board and will be hosting a large show in Pennsylvania in October.
An ARBA rep is emceeing the 2-day demonstration at the Iowa State Fair, in fact. Lynn Rechterman is a lively, gray-haired lady in a red smock who knows her way around a microphone. She offers an uninterrupted stream of bunny trivia between performances, which go much more smoothly after Glimmer is retired for the day.
"There are over 45 breeds of rabbits," Lynn says. She emphasizes safety then tells the kids about the dozens of bunnies she and her husband have raised. "If a rabbit doesn't open its eyes in 10 days," she says, "that's a blind rabbit. And that's a rabbit in our crockpot."
I gasp, worried she's traumatized a room full of wide-eyed children. But these are strong-stomached Iowa kids -- kids who, if they were here 20 minutes before the start of the show, would have witnessed a calf being born in the adjacent "birthing room." They might even be entering their own rabbits in ominously named 4-H State Fair competitions for Best Single Fryer (a rabbit not over 10 weeks, 3 to 5 pounds) or Best Roaster (bunnies up to 6 months, 5 to 8 pounds). The ones who looked bored before the crockpot crack continue to look bored. The enraptured faces still seem to say: tell me more, Bunny Buddha.
A few boy trainers show up to join the demonstration, too. 13-year-old Adam Craighead and his tow-headed 11-year-old brother, Brandon, have brought their rabbits Lilly and Daisy. I ask Adam if it's been difficult to train Lilly, a Mini Rex who performs admirably on stage.
"My two rabbits just naturally hop," he says. "But my friend had to work really hard." As if on cue, Adam's less lucky buddy shows up and off they go.
When I ask Cassandra, who has eight rabbits at home (Joan has 30), which breeds are best for jumping, she lists Tans, Rhinelanders and Checkered Giants. Netherland Dwarfs and Mini Rexes are good smaller breed options, she says, but "it's more about the personality than the breed."
Cassandra brings Dash, a Chocolate Tan, out for a demonstration. Loosely holding his leash, she leads the rabbit over hurdle after hurdle. Oooohs and claps fill the room. As Cassandra steps off the stage, a handful of kids approach to pet the rabbit. A parental "be gentle" refrain echoes behind them.
"You have a lot of rabbit fur on you," a pigtailed 3-year-old girl whispers admiringly. Cassandra smiles down at her, used to bunny-induced attention by now. She's been training rabbits for 5 years already and is a bit of a celebrity in her small town and even beyond. She's been featured in local papers, and Nickelodeon recently flew her out to perform on one of its shows.
As Joan and Cassandra are known as a one-stop-shop for would-be rabbit hopping enthusiasts, their profile will no doubt continue to grow as the sport does. Joan estimates there are currently 500 or 600 people training rabbits to hop in the U.S., with competitions sprouting up across the country.
At the end of the 2-hour performance, Adam and Brandon, the bunny-training brothers, approach Joan to thank her for inviting them.
"Now you boys know you've gotta get gooey with those rabbits, right?" Joan says. "You've gotta bond with them. If they trust you, they'll jump better."
"I get gooey with mine," Adam says.
Joan nods her approval, then tells Cassandra it's time to pack up. They're staying at the fair along with several thousand others who turn the campgrounds into the third largest city in Iowa for a few weeks a year. They've got to go stake out a good spot and try to get some sleep before showing up tomorrow for another demonstration -- hoping that their bunnies wake up in the mood to hop.