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Competitive Rabbit-Hopping Jumps in Popularity

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 29, 2002
 
Rabbits are natural-born hoppers, but the lifetime of domesticated
rabbits in the United States is nothing to jump up and down about: many
spend 90 percent of it locked up in a cage.

Linda Hoover hopes to
change that.


"I see a lot of waste and non-compassion for the species, and I would like to turn that around to a better way of thinking about rabbits in general," said the resident of a small town near Eugene, Oregon.

Hoover is president of the Rabbit Hopping Organization of America. Rabbit hopping, or rabbit jumping, is a novel sport in which rabbits hop over barriers on a course that resembles that of a horse show event scaled down for bunnies.

The activity, said Hoover, is a healthy way for rabbits to interact with their owners beyond the confines of the cage.

Scandinavian Roots

The roots of rabbit hopping are in Sweden, where the sport began in the 1970s. Today, active rabbit hoppers in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and Germany number more than 4,000, and an event can be found somewhere in Europe just about every weekend. A major competition draws as many as 200 entrants.

"Owners and rabbits take the competition very seriously," said Sam Lawrie, a rabbit hopper from the United Kingdom. "Traditionally it was a children's sport, but increasingly adults are getting involved too."

The competition involves jumps on a straight or curved course, and prizes are also awarded for the long jump and high jump. A Danish rabbit is the current world record holder for both the long jump, at 9.8 feet (3 meters), and the high jump, at 3.4 feet (one meter).

"There are no American-bred rabbits or American hoppers that can come anywhere close to those heights, as we are just beginning with the sport," said Hoover. The first open competition on U.S. soil will take place in Eugene on July 20.

Practice, Practice, Practice

While rabbits are natural-born hoppers, hopping over barriers around a course surrounded by giddy spectators takes training and a lot of practice, say the sport's proponents.

Lawrie, a seasoned participant, once trained a rabbit in less than four hours to jump 20 inches (half a meter). But most rabbits, he said, require training sessions of about 20 minutes a day for a couple of weeks to prepare for competition.

To make sure that everyone, including the rabbits, is hopping around at the July event in Eugene, Hoover spends much of her time explaining the tricks of training to youth organizations in Oregon.

The first step, she said, is to get the rabbits comfortable wearing a harness and walking on a variety of surfaces. Rabbits prefer to lead rather than be led, and tend to dart left or right when handlers interrupt their field of vision.

Once a rabbit gets used to the harness, the jumps are introduced.

"You slowly work with them to go over the jumps by placing your hand under the front legs and the other hand under the bottom and actually placing them over the low bars," said Hoover. "They eventually catch on to what you would like them to do."

Common mistakes of the novice rabbit hopper are trying to get the rabbit to jump before it is comfortable running in the harness and getting in front of the rabbit instead of allowing it to take the lead.

By the time a competition rolls around, a well-trained rabbit is ready for action.

"When you take the rabbit out of its cage at the event, or out of their transport box, they know what is going to happen and they are ready," said Aase Bjerner, a rabbit-hopping judge in Denmark and a member of the Rabbit Hopping Committee of the Rabbit Breeding Organization of Denmark.

Choice Breeds

Rabbit hoppers stress that just about any rabbit will do when it comes to selecting a bunny for competitive jumping. The sport, they say, is more about the fun of the experience for the rabbits and the owners than winning a trophy. But there are certain breeds that make better hoppers than others.

For example, rabbits that are short in the back or heavy are structurally limited in their hopping ability, Hoover explained. And rabbits that have thick coats, such as angoras, tend to get hot quickly and won't hop once they are overheated.

"In choosing a good hopper, we look for rabbits that have outgoing temperaments and are more of the curious type," she said.

The sport has a few more limitations: Rabbits under four months old are not allowed to compete, and should not be subject to training. And once male rabbits reach six months old, they often become more interested in the scent of female rabbits than in jumping over a bamboo stick propped up by flower pots.

Hopping Happy?

Glen Carr, secretary of the American Rabbit Breeders Association, is skeptical about the sport of rabbit hopping, saying that rabbits do not need exercise, as pet dogs do, and are simply not built to hop on cue.

"A lot of people have a misconception that [rabbits] need a lot of exercise," he said. "That is not true. They can stay in a small, enclosed area for most of their life and be just fine."

Carr's organization, which is dedicated to raising and exhibiting rabbits, does not have an official stance on the sport of rabbit hopping. But Carr said he would discourage anyone from putting a harness on a rabbit and walking it down the street: "It could eat grass sprayed with pesticide, leaving themselves open to danger."

The promoters of rabbit hopping continue to defend the sport. Come competition day, they see a healthy dose of excitement in both the hopping rabbits and their owners. For Hoover, the scene is much more pleasant than caged rabbits on display at a breeder's show.

But just how do rabbit hoppers know when their rabbits are happy?

"Rabbits show their excitement in different ways," said Hoover. "Some hop straight up in the air after going through the jumps. Others turn circles and stomp the ground. Some rabbits go round and round the owners' legs and grunt while doing it. These are signs of total excitement in the rabbit world."

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