A sport called rabbit hopping has long been popular in Scandinavia, originating in the 1970s. Now, decades later, the rest of the world is catching on. For the first time, this year’s N.C. State Fair featured a competitive rabbit hopping event. The five velvety, long-eared animals of various breeds competed against one another, wowing crowds with their agility and jumping abilities.
Paige Smith, a Kernersville teen, knows a bit about this up and coming sport. Smith, a 19-year-old certified nursing assistant, rabbit breeder/trainer and co-owner of Narrow Gate Farm, won first place in 2014 with her Rhinelander bunny “Hybusa” at the American Rabbit Breeders Association hopping contest.
“Paige has been involved with rabbits at the youth level since she was about six-years-old. She has been involved in all aspects – the raising of the rabbits, the showing of the rabbits and handled the organization of everything as well,” noted Brenda Smith, co-owner of Narrow Gate Farm. Brenda, Paige’s mother, is also president of the N.C. Rabbit Breeders Association.
When asked where her love of rabbits came from, Paige recalled, “When I was about five-years-old I rode horses and loved riding all the time, but I kept getting injured. I remember my family taking me to the Dixie Classic Fair. My sister (Kylee) and I started talking to the rabbits in the Expo area and immediately fell in love with them. From there, we kept bugging our parents about adopting a pet rabbit. Our mother agreed to the rabbits on two conditions, if we were going to have rabbits, we would have more than one rabbit that we keep in a cage and we would show them competitively. We got the greenlight from my father to adopt, and we came home that next weekend with six Holland Lops.
Thirteen years later, the farm boasts around 120 rabbits, including Jersey Wollies, Rhinelanders, Flemish Giants and Holland Lops. In general, Holland Lops are the most popular breed, where the Rhinelanders are the most active breed, making the Rhinelander the popular choice for rabbit hopping.
Paige has been involved with rabbit hopping since the fall of 2011.
“I saw someone doing it, and I thought, ‘That is so cool,’” said Paige, who shows and hops rabbits competitively on a regular basis. Soon thereafter, Paige and “Izzu,” her prized Rhinelander, started training. Within three days, he was ready for his first obstacle course.
The roots of rabbit hopping come from Sweden, where the sport began in the 1970s. Rabbit hopping (sometimes called rabbit jumping) is very popular in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and Germany where competitions can be found about every weekend and may have as many as 200 participants. Since the 1980s, rabbit hopping has slowly been gaining popularity in the U.S.
Rabbit hopping is a novel sport in which rabbits hop over barriers on a course that resembles that of a horseshow event, scaled down for bunnies. The long-eared animals of various breeds are led around by a leash through a gauntlet of 12 jumps.
The activity is a healthy way for rabbits to interact with their owners beyond the confines of the cage, said Paige.
“Owners and rabbits take the competition very seriously. Traditionally, it was a children’s sport, but increasingly adults are getting involved too,” said Paige.
While rabbits are natural-born hoppers, hopping over barriers around a course surrounded by spectators takes training and a lot of practice, say the sport’s proponents.
The first step, Paige said, is to get the rabbits comfortable wearing a harness and walking on a variety of surfaces. Once a rabbit gets used to the harness, the jumps are introduced.
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.
Rabbit hoppers stress that just about any rabbit will do when it comes to selecting a bunny for competitive jumping, but certain breeds make better hoppers than others. According to Paige, “Any rabbit that enjoys jumping can compete in the rabbit hopping competition.”
The sport, they say, is more about the fun of the experience for the rabbits and the owners than winning a trophy.
“We look for rabbits that are highly social and also enjoy agility,” said Paige. The rabbits aren’t motivated by treats to jump over hurdles, so they must naturally be interested in taking part. “Owners can help to gently coax them along the course by softly patting them with their hand. People who use force like kicking are immediately disqualified.”
While the sport may seem taxing on the little animals, rabbit hoppers will be quick to point out that not only are rabbits naturally adept at these sorts of skills, they also thoroughly enjoy them. In fact, most are naturals.
“We do train our own rabbits, but the rabbits really do their own training,” said Paige. A rabbit’s instinctive tendency is to run in zig-zags, attempting to confuse any predators. The rabbits will learn by example, however, eventually becoming excited enough to get out on the course.
As far as the joy of rabbit hopping, the owners seem to enjoy it as much as the rabbits themselves. “It’s lots of fun. I get to spend time with my rabbits and they get plenty of exercise, when they are not being stubborn,” said Paige. “This is a sport where the more you do it, the better your rabbit will respond.”
Paige said while training rabbits for competition, the focus should always be on the safety and happiness of the rabbit. She said a trainer first needs to have a rabbit that is energetic and naturally wants to hop.
“This is like a brand new sport. It came to the United States in the 80s, but it has suddenly gained more and more momentum. There are not many nationally sanctioned rabbit jumping events, and competitions are mostly organized by independent groups and private rabbit owners. However, streamlined national regulations for the sport are being developed by the American Hopping Association for Rabbits and Cavies, an organization chartered by the American Rabbit Breeders Association,” added Brenda.
Rabbit hopping is fun for children and grown-ups alike. Who says horses should have all the fun?