When the coronavirus pandemic forced us into hiding, school activities darted for cover as well. No sports, no band, no Key Club.
And no rabbit showings.
That news nearly wrecked Ryan Smith, age 16.
Not the sports. Or the band. Or Key Club.
Quarantine for Ryan was watching his furry little friends peer out from their cages, all gussied up with nowhere to go.
Or, better yet, to show.
Ryan is a breeder, a sort of Dr. Frankenstein of rabbitry.
Breeding is not rocket science, but there’s an exact science to it. Ryan knows what judges desire for the rabbit shows and obliges. That means a little mixing of this and matching of that.
He’s awfully good at it.
His rabbits have won Best in Breed 13 times and Best in Show twice in major rabbit contests in and outside Texas – one as a grand champion, no less.
In fact, Ryan is so knowledgeable about purebreds he has become the go-to student in Arlington ISD for All Things Rabbit.
During a visit to the district’s Agriculture Science Center recently, I watch as the Arlington High School junior rolls his finger over a rabbit’s ears, saying how judges for that particular breed prefer ears to be short and open, not folded, and how the head should not have a flat brow.
“You want it to round over the brow,” he tells me. “The body must have a short shoulder, not a long one. Same with the midsection. You look at his markings for color in how the eye circles go all the way around. You want it to be nice and full, not thin, or no eye color at all. The idea is to breed to get what the judges are looking for.”
If fellow students ask Arlington High School Ag Science Teacher and FFA Advisor Tanner Smith something specific about rabbits, he speed-dials Ryan.
“There’s an advisor over rabbits and she does a really good job with that,” Tanner Smith says. “But we have 40 to 50 kids who have rabbits and she can’t answer all those questions.”
At the pandemic’s outset, Ryan noticed a few rabbit shows popping up online. So he decided to do the same, but with “some flavor.”
He made digital awards for winners, offered up pictures of the rabbits, and with an entry fee paid out a winner jackpot.
The first show lured 700 exhibitors. Soon his Online Rabbit Show Extravaganza was averaging 1,300 entries a pop and, to make it legit, included a pair of recognized judges from the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA), the national club for domestic rabbit breeders.
“What he pulled off was absolutely amazing,” Tanner Smith says. “He’s been able to create opportunities for not just other FFA and 4H members but opportunities for anyone who has a rabbit to show. This is quite the accomplishment from a junior to be organizing and running a nationally recognized rabbit show.”
Oddly, Ryan didn’t possess a rabbit passion early on. He was sold after his first Freshman AG class.
“I just thought showing rabbits would be easier than showing, like, goats,” Ryan confesses.
Showing rabbits is all about making judges get excited over a purebred fitting its 100-point Standard of Perfection, a grading system based on strict guidelines centered around features such as fur quality, color descriptions, markings and weight.
“Can you get to that 100?” Ryan says. “That’s the goal.”
While there is not much rabbit breeding at the collegiate ranks, post-grad Ryan plans to enter contests as an Open Exhibitor and eventually become an ARBA judge.
He’s off to a good start. He can already give you the lowdown on 40 to 45 unique breeds, right off the top of his head.
Not bad, considering the ARBA lists only 50 of them.