LA PORTE CITY, Iowa --- In the world of rabbit hopping, 11-year-old Cassandra Brustkern is a bit of a celebrity.
She has been on TV --- including "Good Morning America," on the radio, quoted and published in magazines, and she has traveled throughout Iowa, the Midwest and the United States to promote and compete in the sport she loves.
Cassandra, who will begin sixth grade at Hoover Middle School in the fall, started training rabbits in the equestrian-type event --- also known as rabbit show jumping --- when she was in kindergarten. She is a 4-H member of the Big Cedar Springers.
The sport of rabbit hopping began in Sweden in the late 1970s and gained popularity following a demonstration on the television show "That's Life!" Rabbits are separated by class (size) and are judged on how quickly and cleanly they complete a course made up of a series of jumps. Each jump consists of rails placed two inches apart on posts; a jump with eight rails is 16 inches high.
Rabbit hopping is gaining momentum in Iowa, thanks in part to Cassandra's efforts.
Cassandra's passion for rabbit hopping is matched only by her mother's love of the sport. Joan Brustkern has been instrumental in growing interest in the sport. She also serves as a judge at rabbit hopping events.
"It is definitely growing," said Kay Morris, of Nevada, who heads up the Story County Rabbit Hopping Club. "Joan got us started four years ago. The first year we had 10 kids."
Since then, members have multiplied to more than 40, with 36 registered to participate in the Story County Fair on Saturday.
Morris is a 4-H leader and her daughter, Nina, 15, and her son, Reafe, 12, both participate in rabbit hopping.
Morris sees rabbit hopping as a great opportunity to get more kids involved, kids who may not have the money or space to raise large livestock.
"It also gives kids who have rabbits that don't meet show requirements the chance to participate," she said.
Joan Brustkern also is working to get a performance club charter through the American Rabbit Breeders Association. The required number of member signatures has been gathered. Next is an appearance in front of the organization's board of directors and finally a vote will be taken at the association's general meeting.
Another of the Bruskerns' goals is to find a place for rabbit hopping at the Iowa State Fair.
Fair organizers say finding space for the sport is a problem, and they would like to see the sport grow on the county level before it is included in the fair, although they did allow Cassandra to put on a demonstration outside the rabbit barn last year.
"They were shocked at how many people stopped to watch and then went on to the rabbit barn," Joan said.
At a recent demonstration, Cassandra and her parents laid out mats in a straight line and put the jumps in place, balancing the rails on notches on the poles. In their cages, Ebony, Eddie, Jett and other rabbits awaited their chance to perform. Cassandra has raised all of them from babies.
She places a harness and leash on Ebony, a black Tan rabbit, and sets him in front of the first jump. Cassandra tickles his sides a bit to urge him to jump. After a slow start and a few practice runs, Ebony is clearing rails at a pretty good clip.
Cassandra trains her rabbits on the family farm on the edge of La Porte City by using positive reinforcement when they have completed a session, rejecting popular training methods such as using treats before or along the course or using a clicker to motivate the animals. She works them for 15 minutes at a time.
Cassandra also has trained guinea pigs, or cavies, to navigate an obstacle course, much like canine agility competitions. She also tends to calves, a pony, a cat, a dog and chickens.
But rabbit hopping remains closest to her heart.
"It's a fun way to spend time with my rabbits," Cassandra said. "I've been able to meet new people and try new things and learn responsibility. It's been a good experience."