A look at a young 4-H member’s first trip to the state fair — and her blue ribbon rabbit

CATHY WURZER: There are thousands, yes more than 7,000, Minnesota youth with their animals at the state fair this year. They come with their families, their 4-H clubs or FFA chapters. It takes a lot of time and some money to get yourself and your animal to the fair and be part of a competition and hopefully win that blue ribbon.

A little extra financial help goes a long way, so the Minnesota state fair foundation has a grant program for first-time fairgoers to bring their animals to show at the fair. They’re called BELLE Grants, Beginning Exhibitor Livestock Learning Experience. The $250 to $500 grants defray the cost of travel, feed, and animal show supplies.

This year Denica Sleiter of Morris, Minnesota, is one of those lucky grant winners. Friday, I talked to Denica and her mentor, Kianna Dolezal. Kianna is an experienced hand at showing all kinds of livestock. Both young women showed rabbits at the fair this weekend.

DENICA SLEITER: So I’m Denica Sleiter. I have been in the Rabbit Project for three years, and this is my first state fair trip.

CATHY WURZER: It’s amazing, isn’t it?


CATHY WURZER: Tell me about your rabbits.

DENICA SLEITER: I have a Flemish giant here at the state fair. It’s light gray, and it weighs 10 pounds.

CATHY WURZER: It’s a pretty big rabbit. Wow. And have you always shown rabbits, by the way?


CATHY WURZER: No? So this is new for you?


CATHY WURZER: OK. I’m kind of curious, as the mentor in this team, how do you help Denica?

KIANNA DOLEZAL: So I went to her house, and I helped her with some showmanship tips. So in showmanship, you present yourself to show your animal off the best. And so there are a lot of tips and little tricks to do that really well and win, and so that was the main thing I did. And I helped try to identify some of the colors of the mini lops she has at her house.


KIANNA DOLEZAL: And so that was my duty as the mentor, was just to give her the tips and try and figure some of the stuff out.

CATHY WURZER: Showmanship is not easy. I think people think that it’s all the animal. Obviously, the animal is being judged, right? But the showmanship is a big, big deal.

KIANNA DOLEZAL: Yes. I’ve shown every animal’s showmanship, and rabbit is the hardest. In my opinion, my personal experience, rabbit is the hardest, because there’s a book that they can ask you anything in that book about any of the breeds, and they can know the right answer. And so it’s quite a challenging thing, but it’s also a lot of fun when you do well.

CATHY WURZER: What was the biggest takeaway, the biggest thing you learned when you two met and talked about showmanship?

DENICA SLEITER: Probably that she’s really good at showmanship.

CATHY WURZER: What’s the biggest surprise to you with all the things you learned about showmanship?

DENICA SLEITER: I learned that when you’re bringing your rabbit up to the table for it to get judged, I thought the people standing there with their rabbit in their arms just didn’t know what was happening, but I learned now that that’s actually people that know what they’re doing.

CATHY WURZER: That surprises me, because I thought when you’re in showmanship, you have your animal, your rabbit in this case, on the table being judged, that the rabbit is by itself, right? And you are trying to show that rabbit to its best advantage. But you’re allowed to hold the rabbits?

KIANNA DOLEZAL: So when you get to the table, generally you won’t set the animal down until the judge invites you because it shows you’re a bit more professional, and you’re waiting for the judges’ OK. Because maybe the table, the previous rabbit peed on it, so they want to clean that off first. Maybe they’re switching tables or something. So if you stand there and wait until you’re invited, then the judge is ready to judge and do stuff.

CATHY WURZER: It must be really hard.

KIANNA DOLEZAL: It can be, yes, because you don’t know what questions you’re going to be asked. You don’t know who’s in the ring with you.

CATHY WURZER: Denica, are the judges’ questions hard?

DENICA SLEITER: Most of the time, yes.

CATHY WURZER: What’s been the hardest question so far?

DENICA SLEITER: They’ve all been pretty hard, especially when you’re under pressure. You completely forget everything you know.

CATHY WURZER: Trust me, I understand that. OK, so your mentorship-mentee mentorship is really interesting. Has this been done before in 4-H?

KIANNA DOLEZAL: I think it’s been done previously, one year before, in the BELLE Grant program, and I think they’re trying to keep it going because it’s really good for new 4-H’ers to get somebody who’s been to state fair like I have, or even just can tell them a little bit more.

CATHY WURZER: When you get in the ring, what are you judged On What is the what’s the rabbit judged on?

KIANNA DOLEZAL: So when it’s not showmanship, the rabbit can be judged on what the standard says the perfect breed is for that rabbit. So I have satins, and so when I go into the ring, the judge is looking to make sure their hairs are shiny, which happens because of a mutation. It’s what they’re known for. And that their back arches the correct way, they’re built correct, and they’re filled out. For one, it’s a health thing, and, two, for what the purpose of the breed is.

So for my satins, they’re used for meat and fur in the past and now, any time, other than showing. And so the book will tell you exactly how it should be, and that’s what you judge for.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, wow. And so, as you said previously, any question is fair game that the judge might ask you?

KIANNA DOLEZAL: Only in showmanship. In the normal classes, you put your rabbit on the table immediately. You immediately pose them to get them to show off the best thing. And then the judge will come, and they’ll feel the rabbit. And they’ll pose them their way.

CATHY WURZER: Got it. OK, so what’s it like being at the fair?

DENICA SLEITER: It’s very interesting. It’s a lot going on at once.

CATHY WURZER: What’s your favorite fair food?

DENICA SLEITER: Martha’s cookies.

CATHY WURZER: It’s a good one. It’s a good one. By the way, I admitted to you before we started our talk that I did 4-H as a kid, and I showed a dog and did photography. What would you tell kids nowadays about being a 4-H’er? Why is it a good thing?

DENICA SLEITER: Well, first, it’s really fun, and you learn a lot of different skills with different kinds of animals. It’s fun. Really enjoyable.

CATHY WURZER: It is enjoyable. What would you say to a young person who might be thinking about 4-H?

KIANNA DOLEZAL: Well, I think even if you don’t do animals and you do that photography, or you do the dog, or you do the pet project, where you bring in your pet cat and you talk about it, it lets you get out there, meet people, and try new things, get out of your comfort zone in a good way that’s fun. And if you decide to do livestock or horses, anything like that, you can just try things. Just enjoy and try what you might enjoy for a career or something.

CATHY WURZER: By the way, being a mentor, what’s it like for you to watch a young person like Denica blossom?

KIANNA DOLEZAL: Well, it was really fun. I went to her county fair show, and I watched her up in the best-in-show lineup and get high on that placement and then win her showmanship class. So it was really fun to see her take some of those tips and even use some of her own technique and just really succeed in her county. And I hope she’ll do the same at state.

CATHY WURZER: I hope you do, too. Congratulations.


CATHY WURZER: It should be really fun. I wish you all the best. It was fun to see both of you. Thanks for stopping by the booth.

KIANNA DOLEZAL: Yeah, no problem.

CATHY WURZER: Denica Sleiter and her mentor, Kianna Dolezal. Both are 4-H’ers years who showed rabbits at the fair this year. By the way, Denica ended up with a blue ribbon and ranked second in her class for her rabbit. Congratulations, Denica. By the way, if you’re curious, there are some really good bunny showmanship videos on YouTube. My favorites are posted by Treyah’s Hip-Hop Rabbitry.

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