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    Hopping toward victory at Loudoun County Fair

    Sparky leaps over an obstacle in a straight course competition with the guidance of his handler. Courtesy Photo

    It's a straight shot. One rabbit with a few jumps to make. Fastest time with the fewest faults wins. For Sparky, a 3-year-old lionhed buck, the 2014 Loudoun County Fair Rabbit Hopping Competition on July 23 meant victory.

    Sparky came in first place with 7.5 seconds and zero faults. He beat Buzz, a junior buck Holland lop, by 12.5 seconds. Sparky's adoptive brother, Shadow, came in third with eight seconds and a tragic one fault earned when his leg grazed a rail as he hopped over.

    Sparky competed on the straight course with a series of obstacles. The jumps are made up of rails and bars. Faults are earned when any part of the obstacle is moved, when a rabbit misses an obstacle or has to be helped by the handler, when an adult assists the handler, or when the rabbit runs off-course and fails to get back on track within 20 seconds.

    The course is set up with a total of 10 obstacles, which can include the vertical jump, hoop jump, water jump, open tunnel, teeter totter, a-frame or balance beam, among others. Handlers maneuver their rabbits through these obstacles in marked order. Competitors are scored by fastest time and least number of faults.

    Despite his success, Sparky hasn't always been in the winner's circle. In fact, he started out in the Loudoun County Animal Shelter. His family saw his picture at a booth hosted by the shelter at Bunny Bonanza, and 12-year-old Calle Junker, Sparky's handler, said he was just what they were looking for.

    “We went to the shelter to visit him and he seemed like a really nice rabbit and that he would do well at hopping,” said Junker. “So we filled out the forms and got him. He's very small and quick. He has more of the temperament [of a racing rabbit]. He's more hyper and a little bit shy. But he's not calm and lazy like some other rabbits.”

    The most important person in Sparky's life is Junker. Since she and her family adopted him on Easter Eve when Sparky was nearly 3, she has been hard at work training him to be the best that he can be.

    Before he set foot on any competitive courses, Sparky's biggest struggle was gaining comfort with his harness, which allows his handler to guide him through the obstacle courses without touching him. According to Junker and her mother, Darcey Wilkes, Shadow was easier to train on the harness, but Sparky excelled at the obstacles themselves. And he's a quick learner.

    In his first competition, a straight course with the Pennsylvania Rabbit Breeders Association, Sparky took a minute with multiple faults to complete his first run of the course. The second time around, he diminished his time and faults significantly, despite his discomfort at the strange environment, which Wilkes said was obvious.

    “We were very proud that he learned each time and he improved each time,” she said.

    Any rabbit can be trained to jump, according to Junker and Wilkes. Sparky and Shadow both started later, but the ideal age to start is 3 or 4 months old.

    Training itself involves long hours by both handler and rabbit, acclimating them to the obstacles and guiding them over higher jumps and through more complicated tasks with incentives like apple peels, Sparky's personal favorite.

    Sparky might be a fierce competitor, but off the course he's just a normal rabbit.

    “He's a really sweet rabbit,” said Junker. “And sometimes when you sit on the ground he'll come up and sit in your lap. He doesn't like to be picked up a lot...But he goes fast.”
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