Hop to it: Jefferson County Fair hosts first rabbit hopping contest

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(Scroll down to see our photo gallery AND videos of the rabbits in action!)

SMITHFIELD, Ohio — In truth, we could all learn a little something from Mr. Pepper. Like how to get back up on your own four paws and keep hopping. Oh — right. Let’s rewind.

Mr. Pepper is a rabbit. A white-and-black spotted Lionhead-Mini Rex, to be exact. And at a year-and-a-half, he’s an accomplished competitive hopper. That’s right. Competitive hopper. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Conquering adversity

Kayla Striker with her rabbit Mr. Pepper at Jefferson County Fair 2015
Kayla Striker, 11, of Richmond coaxes Mr. Pepper through a practice hopping course July 13.

A year ago, a dog attacked Mr. Pepper. He lost two toes on his right front paw. It could have been a debilitating wound. For some, it would have been.

Not Mr. Pepper. He had been in training for just a few months when he was attacked, but his owners, Kayla and Christine Striker of Richmond, Ohio, say the wound didn’t faze him.

The secret to his success? Kayla, 11, attributes his pluckiness to “super powers.”

In training

Now, about that hopping. One recent Monday evening, the Jefferson County Fairgrounds livestock arena rings with laughter and small talk. One by one, rabbits wearing harnesses and attached leads are set at the beginning of a U-shaped course with nine jumps on padded mats. Their handlers hold their leads as each animal maneuvers through the course. Children, teenagers and adults mill around, more rabbits tucked under arms or resting on shoulders. Still more rabbits rest in carriers and cages.

Throughout the summer, they have gathered to work on training — beginning obedience work, as well as jumping run-throughs. All in preparation for Jefferson County Fair’s first official rabbit hopping competition.

One of a kind

Tammy Mazzaferro watching rabbit run at Jefferson Co. Fair 2015
Tammy Mazzaferro of Wintersville watches a rabbit run through a practice jumping course July 13.

In previous years, the fair has hosted rabbit hopping demonstrations, but this year’s fair will feature an open rabbit hopping competition at 9 a.m. Aug. 20. Competitors 19 and under within Jefferson County can bring their rabbits to compete. Hopping competitions are judged on how fast rabbits complete a course without knocking bars down. Like horse show jumping, time is added for each downed pole. Handlers can adjust a rabbit’s approach to a jump, but must stay outside each jump.

Jefferson County could be the only fair with such a contest in Ohio, said Tammy Mazzaferro, one of the local leaders of the rabbit hopping movement. She is also secretary for the American Hopping Association for Rabbits and Cavies.

Making it official

Of course, rabbits already hop. The competitive part came in the early 1970s, thanks to the Swedes, according to the American Hopping Association’s website. The Swedes developed guidelines and equipment — modeling the jumps after horse show jumps, although on a smaller scale. There are now hopping organizations in Europe and other parts of the world. Organized competitions feature agility courses and rabbit hopping, including high jump and long jump.

Still novel here

For the most part, the U.S. movement has been out of the spotlight. A few large media outlets have taken notice though. The sport earned mentions from People magazine and Perez Hilton in 2010. In 2002, National Geographic featured it as well. (Canada has had a wider introduction — in 2012, the Canadian Rabbit Hopping Club appeared on Canada’s Got Talent, sending the judges and the audience into hysterics.)

“There’s a lot of grassroots demonstrators that are working to try and build the sport,” Mazzaferro said.

No tracking

The American Rabbit Breeders Association, headquartered in Bloomington, Illinois, has been in existence in one version or another since 1906. The hopping movement is so new, however, the organization hasn’t tracked participation. The American Hopping Association formed two years ago, following a short stint by the Rabbit Hopping Organization of America.

Roots

Crystal Eshbaugh, of Smithfield, teasingly calls Mazzaferro, her sister, the “rabbit whisperer.” Still, she enjoys supporting the rabbit hopping efforts.

“She’s really good with the kids … puts a lot of time into this,” Eshbaugh said.

The Mazzaferros showed rabbits on the county level before making their national debut in 2011. They started with six rabbits — by the end of the year, they had 40. Tammy sheepishly estimates they have more than 130 rabbits now, ranging from “spoiled house bunnies” to show rabbits. Three of the Mazzaferro children — Kyrsten, 15; Catalina, 13; and Franklin, 10 — show rabbits. The teens compete nationally.

At a show a couple of years ago, they saw rabbit hopping for the first time. Tammy said after they returned home to Wintersville, she immediately built some jumps to try it.

Ideal hoppers

When it comes to rabbit hopping, not all bunnies are created equal. Tammy recommends a rabbit with a “nice hip-to-shoulder ratio,” a balanced distribution of weight between the front and back. Good breeds include Rhinelander and English Spot. But personality does play a part.

Some rabbits are too high energy to sit on a table and be judged. That’s why Tammy enjoys competitive hopping — it offers an outlet for those rabbits to excel. It also allows mixed breeds to shine — rabbits like Mr. Pepper.

Like a pro

As Franklin and Happy, a Mini Rex, start the course, Mazzaferro and the others watch.

“You go as fast as the rabbit,” she advised the handler. “The rabbit stops, you stop.”

Throughout the evening, each rabbit had a chance to run through the course. Some need more coaxing than others. Giggles rang out as a rabbit spazzed out and raced through the course or tried to shimmy under the poles. Others glided through like pros. Pros like Mr. Pepper.

Kayla sets him at the start several times. Each time, he calmly tackles the jumps. Eshbaugh laughs as she watches him navigate one round.

“I think we all cheer Mr. Pepper on.”

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Rabbit hopping gains national traction

SALEM, Ohio — The Jefferson County Fair may be one of the only places you’ll find an organized rabbit hopping contest anywhere this summer. But that could change soon.

Rabbit lovers are excited about competitive hopping, and American Rabbit Breeders Association, which sets breed standards for rabbits and cavies in the U.S., wants to capitalize on it.

“The interest in it has been growing rapidly,” said Mike Avesing, president of the American Hopping Association of Rabbits and Cavies and past president of ARBA. He is helping to get the fledgling association up and running.

Unlike judging, rabbit hopping is a spectator sport. At a recent national show hopping demonstration, the room was packed and the audience cheered — not a typical atmosphere for shows, Avesing said. The goal is to eventually incorporate hopping and agility events into national shows.

Competitive rabbit hopping began in Sweden in the 1970s and has an established foothold in Europe. It’s been slow to catch on in the U.S., though.

Avesing, who lives in Muscatine, Iowa, has 50 years of experience in rabbits. This hopping thing, though, is new to him. In fact, “it’s new for most of us.”

As of now, there are no sanctioned shows, which would require the reporting of participation. So, there’s no tracking of hopping enthusiasts.

Avesing hopes to see that change.

Jefferson County Fair 2015 Rabbit Hopping
Cookie navigates the rabbit hopping course at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds on July 13 in Smithfield, Ohio. The county will host competitive rabbit hopping for the first time this year during the fair.

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Tammy Mazzaferro gives tips to attendees

Tammy Mazzaferro, right, gives tips to attendees of a rabbit hopping clinic as her sister, Crystal Eshbaugh, coaxes her rabbit through the practice course on July 13 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio.
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Tammy Mazzaferro gives tips to attendees

Tammy Mazzaferro, right, gives tips to attendees of a rabbit hopping clinic as her sister, Crystal Eshbaugh, coaxes her rabbit through the practice course on July 13 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio.
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Cookie navigating the rabbit hopping course

Cookie navigates the rabbit hopping course at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds on July 13 in Smithfield, Ohio. The county will host competitive rabbit hopping for the first time this year during the fair.
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Catalina Mazzaferro, 13, works her rabbit, Spartacus

Catalina Mazzaferro, 13, works her rabbit, Spartacus, through the rabbit hopping practice course on July 13 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio. Jefferson County Fair will host its first rabbit hopping competition this year.
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Kayla Striker and her rabbit Mr. Pepper

Kayla Striker, 11, of Richmond, Ohio, coaxes Mr. Pepper, a Lionhead Mini Rex, through a practice rabbit hopping course at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds July 13. Kayla and Mr. Pepper will compete in Jefferson County Fair’s first rabbit hopping competition this year.
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Mr. Pepper

Mr. Pepper, a Lionhead Mini Rex, relaxes between jumping run-throughs at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio, July 13. He and his handler, Kayla Striker, 11, will compete in Jefferson County Fair’s first rabbit hopping competition this year.
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Mr. Pepper, a Lionhead-Mini Rex mix

Mr. Pepper, a Lionhead-Mini Rex mix, wouldn't qualify for showing, because he's a mix and he is missing toes on his front paw from a dog attack last year. But at a clinic on July 13 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio, he showed where he shines: competitive hopping.
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George clears a practice jump

George, a young Rhinelander, is coaxed to clear a practice jump on July 13 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio. Rhinelanders are one breed that does well at competitive hopping because of their long legs and body.
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Kyrsten Mazzaferro's rabbit Seb clears the high jump

Kyrsten Mazzaferro, 15, watches as her rabbit, Seb, clears the high jump at the rabbit hopping clinic on July 13, at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio. Jefferson County Fair will host its first rabbit hopping competition this year.
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The rabbit hopping course

The rabbit hopping course at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. The fair will host its first rabbit hopping competition this year.
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Kassidy George, 11 (left) and Corissa Griffith, 11, with their rabbits

Kassidy George, 11, of Adena, Ohio (left) and Corissa Griffith, 11, hold their rabbits at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds rabbit hopping course.
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Tammy Mazzaferro of Wintersville, Ohio

Tammy Mazzaferro of Wintersville, Ohio, watches a rabbit run through a practice jumping course at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio, on July 13. Mazzaferro first saw competitive rabbit hopping a couple of years ago and has helped bring the event to Jefferson County Fair, which will host the first competition this year.
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Tammy Mazzaferro of Wintersville, Ohio, left, and her sister, Crystal Eshbaugh of Smithfield, Ohio

Tammy Mazzaferro of Wintersville, Ohio, left, and her sister, Crystal Eshbaugh of Smithfield, Ohio, give their rabbits a rest during a hopping clinic July 13 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. Rabbit hopping is a family affair for them — their children will compete in Jefferson County Fair’s first competition this year.
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Kyrsten Mazzaferro, 15, works with her rabbit, Seb

Kyrsten Mazzaferro, 15, works with her rabbit, Seb, on the high jump, as Johanna George, 6; Crystal Eshbaugh; and Kassidy George, 11, look on, July 13, at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, in Smithfield, Ohio. Jefferson County Fair will host its first rabbit hopping competition this year.
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CJ Adams with his rabbit, Bandit

CJ Adams, 13, and Bandit attended a rabbit hopping clinic July 13 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio, to practice the jumping course. They will compete at Jefferson County Fair’s first rabbit hopping competition this year.
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Tammy Mazzaferro gives pointers at rabbit hopping clinic

Tammy Mazzaferro, center, gives pointers on beginning training at a rabbit hopping clinic July 13 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Smithfield, Ohio. From left, pictured are Franklin Mazzaferro, 10; Kassidy George, 11; Sarah Fox, 13; Neva Fox; and Elijah Fox, 15. Jefferson County Fair will host its first rabbit hopping competition this year.

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