TRAINING AND SHOWING BELGIAN HARES
By Frank Zaloudek
When you look at the picture of the Belgian Hare in the ARBA Standard of Perfection, your attention is immediately drawn to its pose, standing on the toes of its fully extended front legs, ears erect, body carried high above the floor and with a wild look in its eye. If you have been around Belgians for a while, you will learn that this is the pose it takes only when excited, startled or when it is eagerly anticipating food or drink. It is not a pose that it would take in a relaxed, non threatening situation or in the intimidating surroundings of the showroom. How do you get you Belgians to pose as it the picture? The simple answer is that they have to be trained!
But, before we start our discussion of training Belgian Hares to pose, we first must note that there is nothing in the ARBA Standards of Perfection to guide us on how a Hare is to be posed or even if a Hare should be posed at all for judging! Indeed, some judges don't try to pose Hares, but rather just let them move about normally on the table or in special Judging cages if they are provided by the club sponsoring the show. However, most breeders and judges will agree that a Hare will show off its features best if posed in its "on alert" stance with its body carried high above the table on its tiptoes and with a wild expression in its eyes.
The problem is that there are many ways an exhibitor can train a Hare to pose, and there are just as many ways that judges use to pose a Hare. If the Hare's training and the judges set-up technique "click", then it might be successfully posed; otherwise, the judging can degrade to a "wrestling match" ("acrobatics at a Halloween party" as characterized by the late Dr. Terry Reed) between the judge and the Hare during which time is wasted and the Hare, no matter how deserving, will be at a disadvantage to Hares that pose easily.
How can these "wrestling matches" be avoided? Is it the responsibility of the judges, of the breeder/exhibitor, or both? Perhaps we can get some answers to these questions if we look at techniques used and advocated by some judges and breeder/exhibitors.
There seems to be a number of basic methods in use at the present time. These methods can be characterized in the following descriptive terms:
- The "natural pose" method
- The "shoulder pressure" method
- "Ear lift" method
- "Head lift" method
- "Body stretch" method
and combinations of the above. Lets look at a description of each of these methods and comments on some of them as presented in past issues of the ABHC "Spotlight" and the ABHC Guidebook."
The "Natural Pose" Method
In the "Natural Pose" method, no attempt is made by the judge to set up the Hare; instead, it is allowed to move about naturally in a judging coop. John C. Fehr wrote in the 1975 ABHC Guidebook, "Many a fine Belgian Hare loses out because of not being properly handled. You need not wrestle a Belgian Hare around nor stretch his limbs out like a chiropractor would do; he will show you in the coop where he is weak and where he stands out. Mr. Fehr described his judging technique as follows: "You must have a wire coop large enough so that your rabbit can run around and stand up, one for each entry. After you have taken them out to examine for disqualifications, they are placed back into the coop. Judging is then done in the coop. A good idea is to place one which looks good at the head of the class, the next best and so on. Now is the time to go along the line and study their action, moving them back or forward from coop to coop. Don't make snap judgments. After you eliminate your class down to the five winners, your job really begins all over again. Here the experienced Belgian Hare exhibitor has the advantage. He has worked with his Hares to the point that they are really proud to show off."
By allowing the Hares to pose naturally takes the pressure off the judge to make the animals all assume a, more or less, identical pose. However, it requires the breeder/exhibitor to "condition" his hares so that they will move about the judging coop in a manner to show off their best attributes. A Hare cowering in the corner of the coop because of the intimidating surroundings and crowds will certainly will not show off his best stuff to the judge! What can the breeder do to prepare his animals? It's important that a breeder frequently handle his Hares so that they will be accustomed to being handled and examined. Placing them on the judging table before the show starts can get them familiar with the surroundings and placing them on your grooming table prior to judging can prepare them for the presence of spectators (a Hare on display seems to always be able to attract a crowd).
The "Shoulder Pressure" Method
In an article written for the ABHC Spotlight, Dr. Terry Reed recommended that Belgian Hare enthusiasts attempt to train their animals using a method similar to the following:
1. Position the hind legs in a manner such that the animal is sitting squarely on the hind legs in a natural position.
2. With one hand between the forelegs, the front portion of the Hare is gently raised and at the same time very gently pushed backwards until the animal extends its front legs.
3. During the extension of the front legs, a light amount of pressure is placed on the shoulders with the opposing hand.
4. As the Hare rests the tip of the toes on the extended limbs, the hand is removed from between the legs.
5. Slight alternating pressure is maintained on the top of the shoulders until it can be removed and the animal maintains its stance. (The Hare will tend to rise up to resist the pressure, there by extending its front leg and raising its head.)
6. Stepping back from the table, it is anticipated that the animal will maintain position and look about alertly.
7. After the animal has been completely evaluated in the posed position, one can allow the animal to move back and forth on the table to evaluate the extension of limbs and other characteristics. Caution should be utilized not to "wear the animal out" on the table.
Dr. Reed advised, " The posing position will not "just happen" with regularity and it is anticipated that the younger the animal and the more frequent it is handled and posed, the more natural it will become for the Belgian Hare to pose on the table. However, with noise, strange environment, and other peculiarities, the position must be adjusted from time to time to accomplish the correct pose."
He also advised that, "Due to the extremely long legs, long body, fine bone, and fragile ears, it is extremely important that when handling the Hare, one is very gentle and uses extreme caution in protecting the animal to the best of their ability. Due to the temperament of the Belgian Hare, one must be firm, but not aggressive in the handling procedure or the animal will become extremely excited and there is a possibility of self trauma to these beautiful creatures." Most Belgian Hare breeders will agree that their animals are most certainly more robust than they appear and a judge should not be afraid of handling them in a normal manner. A Hare should, of course, not be abused, but neither should any other breed of rabbit.
The "Ear Lift" Method
Ted Gordon described the "ear lift" method in the 1975 ABHC Guidebook. He noted, "Posing for show seems to be a matter of the Hare's confidence in the handler, much training so that the Belgian knows what is wanted, and the inborn proud attitude of the "King of the Fancy." "The system of training that seems to work for us begins at about weaning age. Time is spent every day even if it is just a minute apiece to get the animals used to being handled. I try not to "pet" them -- that is, stroke them from the shoulders to hips -- because then they tend to flatten out or crouch down (though they do enjoy being petted). Running both hands along the sides of the Hare, lifting the front quarters slightly and then tucking the hindquarters as you pass over them gives the young Hare the idea of being high on the front legs."
To pose a Belgian Place the Hare on a piece of carpet facing left.
1. Place the back feet out at about 30 degrees on each side to give a good solid base to sit on, and untuck the tail if necessary.
2. Grasp the ears gently in your right hand and place the left hand, palm up and fingers pointing away from you, under the belly.
3. Move the left hand up to behind the front legs extending them fully. Lift with the left hand and at the same time gently raise the Hare with the right hand which is grasping the ears. Lift up and back with as much weight as possible on the rear feet. There is some gentle pull on the ears with your right hand, but you are also supporting the chest with the left hand. See the accompanying photograph for correct hand position.
4. Raise the Hare in this manner until his feet are clearing the carpet and hanging straight. Ease the pressure of the right hand on the ears and lower him slowly onto his tip toes, encouraging the Hare to support himself high on his front legs.
"It will take many, many times to get a Hare to hold this stance at all -- as many as 20 to 25 attempts a day for a week before he learns. If he struggles, don't force him, but set him free and talk soothingly to him. Then start again. You gain the Belgian's confidence by working with him gently, and eventually he learns to enjoy the handling and seems to want to please you."
Mr. Gordon noted that, "If the Belgian Hare is going to respond (and most, but not all, eventually do) it will come after many attempts, and each attempt should follow the same order so that the Hare becomes accustomed to the same routine each time. Once the Belgian Hare will bear his weight on the front legs, the next step is to get him to "hold it" for a longer and longer period of time, talking to him gently, praising his effort, and "radiating your pleasure at his performance. If you "feel with" your Belgians a sense of shared joy in each others existence, these beautiful sensitive animals will respond. The old timers tell me that years ago, a well trained Hare would "hold" for three minutes or more!!"
The "Head Lift" Method
The "Head Lift" method is a variation of the Ear Lift Method and is seen practiced by some judges and breeders/exhibitors that are reluctant or unaccustomed to pulling on a rabbit's ears, no matter how gently. It can also be use on individual specimens that refuse to have their ears grasped.
This method proceeds as follows:
1. Place the Hare facing away from you and to the left with back feet out at about 30 degrees on each side to give a good solid base to sit on, and untuck the tail if necessary.
2. Similarly to the Ear Lift Method, place the left hand, palm up and fingers pointing away from you, under the belly. Instead of grasping the ears, place the right hand along the Hare's left cheek. Place your bent thumb behind the ears and a finger under the Hare's chin. Use whatever finger is suitable to avoid placing pressure on the Hare's throat. Doing so will cause the Hare to struggle.
3. Move the left hand up to behind the front legs extending them fully. Lift with the left hand and at the same time gently raise the Hare's head with the right hand. Lift up and back with as much weight as possible on the rear feet. With you thumb, position the ears in the vertical position.
4. Raise the Hare in this manner until his feet are clearing the carpet and hanging straight, and slowly lower him onto his tip toes until his feet touch and the legs bear his weight. At some point, you will feel his body relax; when you do, slowly withdraw your left had from beneath his belly.
5. The Hare's head should remain positioned by the right hand as pictured in the accompanying photograph. You will feel the Hare start to support his head and ease the pressure on your right hand. As he does, remove your right hand slowly in a manner that you do not brush the Hares whiskers abruptly. Doing so will make him flinch.
6. Anticipating that the Hare will hold this pose, stand back smartly and evaluate the animal.
When training the hare to pose, lavish praise on him when he holds a pose, even if very briefly. Sometimes a treat such as a raisin or a black sunflower seed given in reward for a good performance will solidify his training. After repeating this procedure frequently, 20 or more times daily for a week, you will find the Hare holding the pose quickly will little effort on your part. Ideally, he will snap into the pose when placed on the carpet and hold it for a brief period of time, but only few progress to that type of performance.
The "Body Stretch" Method
Some popular Belgian Hare judges are currently using a previously undescribed, but apparently very successful method of posing Hares. This method seems to work on both highly trained animals and those who have had only minimal training. Furthermore, this method appears to induce a Hare to show off its finest attributes, and it can net outstanding and consistent results.
Although there are some variations on the application of this method, it essentially proceeds as follows:
1. Place the Hare on a piece of carpet at a 45 degree angle so that it is facing your right shoulder.
2. Straighten out the tail with your left hand if it is tucked under the body, and place your fingers under the body from the rear.
3. Place your right hand at the left cheek of the Hare, fingers extended. Place the bent forefinger in back of the ears, the bent ring or small finger under the chin, and the thumb on the forehead. Be careful not to put any pressure on the throat of the Hare or it will start struggling.
4. Simultaneously with both hands lift the Hare so that both fore and hind legs barely touch the rug. The Hare will extend its fore and hind legs to the maximum to try to maintain touch with the rug. Also, with the finger under the chin, tip the head slightly upwards and gently pull the head so that the Hare stretches out its body. Position the hare so that most of its weight will be placed on the hind legs when lowered to the rug. (See the accompanying photograph for hand positions before stretching the body.)
5. Gently lower the Hare to the rug, tapping its front feet on the rug to encourage it to stand on its toes. Some will gently message the Hare's forehead with the thumb of the right hand to quiet the animal before releasing it; however, I have not found this particularly useful.
Slowly slip the left hand from under the hind end, and as the Hare relaxes, remove your right hand from its head and step back to evaluate it.
If at any time the Hare starts to struggle during posing, release it and start over again. This method seem to work best if the handlers actions are assertive but not abusive. Also, watch the palm of your right hand because it is in a vulnerable position should the Hare decide to bite.
The particular advantage of this method is that it will encouraged the Hare to both stretch and position its body, both front and rear, well off the rug.
Closing Remarks on Posing Belgian Hares
As pointed out at the beginning, this is only a sampling of methods in use to pose Hares. There are probably other methods available and combinations of methods that will induce a Hare to assume the desired pose. However, it is important to note that a Hare will not pose without some effort be expended on the part of the breeder/exhibitor. With the many posing methods practiced by various judges, a breeder can only hope to expose his animals to enough of a variety of methods so that it will respond to the judges handling no matter what technique he uses. However, it means a lot of work by the breeder if he wants his animals to excel. It would be beneficial for both breeders and judges alike if some agreement, formal or informal, could be reached on a "standard" procedure. I have no propositions or suggestions on how such an agreement could be arrived at.
I'm certainly no judge, but it seem to me that the most the most convenient way to pose and judge the Belgian Hare by the "natural method" in special judging cages which are 1) large enough for the Hares to move about and stretch and 2) are available in sufficient numbers to allow a whole class to be judged simultaneously. However, not many clubs sponsoring shows provide judging cages or are even aware that they may be desirable. They will only provide such equipment if both the breeders and the judges make them aware that such equipment can make the judging proceed faster and be more satisfying for all involved. To cope with situations where adequate equipment may not be available, both the judges and the breeders must be knowledgeable of the various methods available to pose Hares. The judge should be flexible enough in his techniques to bring out the best qualities if the animals he is judging, and the breeder should try to prepare his animals for whatever it encounters on the judging table.
The judge encountering some of his first Belgian Hares on the judging table should be assured that these animals are more rugged than they look and that he should approach the task of judging confident that he has the full understanding and support of the breeders on the other side of the table.