By Valdine Short, Alberta
I would like to share with you some of what I have been taught or have learned from experience, breeding marked breeds. With my Harlequins I strive for good health, type, color, fur and markings in that order. Fur and color are highly inheritable and type and markings to a lesser degree. The type of bone (fine, medium or heavy bone), affects an animal’s type, size and fur quality. It is impossible to have good color without good fur. You must start with animals that have good depth of color to maintain good color. It is best to breed the same color to the same color or cross only compatible color varieties to maintain color quality. Marking patterns are somewhat unstable, but an animal with clean markings can usually pass them on. Try to select bucks and does with markings that match up to each other, one being lightly marked and the other being heavier in markings. The goal is to achieve the desirable medium marking features. Avoid undesirable characteristics that could become compounded in your herd, such as health issues, genetic defects, poor color, white spotting on the Japanese, excessive brindling, incorrect fur type, etc.
Now, let’s talk about type. As Harlequin breeders we tend to feel somewhat discouraged when judges appear to place Harlequins solely on type and not by their markings. As I was once told, “You don’t usually eat a steak that came from a Holstein or Jersey steer and the milk you drink most likely didn’t come from an Angus or Hereford cow, even though these cattle breeds all have commercial attributes, they are bred for different purposes”. The fact that the Harlequin is considered a commercial breed by ARBA standards doesn’t mean the Harlequin’s body type is supposed to be like a New Zealand’s or Californian. They were created for meat production. The Harlequin was created for its color and markings, being hardy, gentle and usually easy to breed, having good mothering abilities and good size litters, which is what you want, being that breeding Harlequins is considered somewhat of a numbers game when looking for that ideal marked Harlequin in a litter. However this also means you get a lot of poorly marked ones that need to be culled and perhaps used for commercial purposes.
With that said, even though type only carries 10 points in the Harlequin standard, a Harlequin’s body should still resemble what is described in the Standard as “General Type” and should still be considered when selecting animals for breeding or show stock. We should be breeding to the standard so type will appear consistent in all Harlequins. An animal with correct type will look balanced and show off its color and markings. Poor body type is a major distraction from an otherwise nicely marked and colored animal.
The Harlequin standard reads as follows: “General Type-Points 10: Head, ears, and body should be well proportioned and gracefully carried. Ears are to be carried in a “V”. The width of the hindquarters should be slightly wider than the width at the shoulders. The top line should begin at the nape of the neck, gradually rising to a high point over the hindquarters, and then gently slope to the tail. Bone is to be medium. Faults – Excessive dewlap; massive or wedged shape head; short body; short ears”. The ARBA standard states a commercial typed body should be of medium length.
Now that you have just read this description, have you ignored what it describes as the ideal type for your Harlequins? Go out and run your hands over your Harlequins, close your eyes and feel what the judges feel. Do they feel like what the description explains they should feel like? If not, I’m not saying go out and cull your herd if they don’t measure up, only that there is work to be done with your animals. Now, set a goal, picture the ideal Harlequin in your mind, carefully plan your matings and monitor the results, maintaining a strict selection process. Improving the type will take time as there are no quick fixes. So don’t introduce other breeds into the Harlequin breed to try to achieve better bodies or color. I realize that doing so can add to the gene pool, as this has already been tried many times and the results have not benefited the breed. From what I’ve seen, body type is inconsistent, markings and color are of poor quality and a lot more unknown genes have now been introduced into the Harlequin breed that show up several generations later. All you are doing is recreating a breed that has already been created, taking it back to its early stages of development. We should be improving the breed by breeding only Harlequin to Harlequin, culling heavy, selecting only the animals that offer an improvement over their parents and that carry the traits that will improve our herds.
Good type must come from the buck. If you have a doe that has good or “buck like type”, then that is an extra bonus and she should be kept and bred to a buck with good type. Also body size is mainly inherited from the doe, so try not to keep small does but those that are close to the ideal size, 8 pounds or so. Keep breeding stock that has the proper medium bone. They usually produce good boned youngsters. Bone is important in good type and you need a proper frame on which to build. Keep in mind an animal’s bone structure is present the day the animal is born, and doesn’t change, it only gets larger as the animal grows. Size of bone affects several traits, type, masculinity, femininity, body size and fur quality. Length of bone affects muscling and condition. If the bones are not the right diameter/heaviness and length and lined up in the right places, the muscle will not have the support to develop the way it should on the body. Good muscling is then in part beneficial in achieving firm flesh condition.
If you have a rabbit that is finer in bone, it will usually have a more feminine appearance with a smaller, narrow head, thin narrow ears, narrow chest accompanied by narrow shoulders, a longer body, finer legs, protruding hips and the pin bones will be close together and the animal will appear to be chopped or undercut in the hind end. If you look at the hind feet they will be narrow and longer from the toe to the hock and more prone to sore hocks. With the finer bone, the fur density and texture will most likely be thinner and softer. However when breeding animals at the opposite extreme, as the bone increases, so does the size of the animal. The shoulders may be lower and/or longer, rising to a massive hind end. It also increases the coarseness of the fur. Heavy boned animals appear to be masculine and massive, their appearance may look sloppy and out of balance.
When I’m evaluating my rabbits bodies on which animals to keep, I start by properly posing them, then I run my hand over the animal’s back to feel for the top line, starting at the nape of the neck moving my hand over the back to feel for a spine that is smooth, not rough, that flows to a gradual rise to the high point over the hind quarters and then gently sloping to the base of the tail. I like to feel for fullness in the hind end with little to no hollow between the pin bones. However, I don’t mean to offend anyone when I say that the hind end should not be so full and massive, that it looks like it’s been stuffed with a basketball. I just don’t believe a Harlequin’s body is supposed to be massive in any way, shape or form: it can appear unbalanced and be just as unappealing as a rabbit that is boney with wide protruding hip bones. Next I use what I call the “finger test” (2 fingers = about 1 inch). Place your fingers behind the head, the area between the ear base and the front of the shoulders. If you fit no fingers, it’s ideal, 1 finger – good, 2 fingers or more – this animal will appear to have long or low shoulders. Now, with the animal still posed, cup your hand over the animal’s back and use your fingers to check the distance between the last rib and the hip bone on each side of the loin, the closer this is the better. Never keep an animal with more than 2 fingers width in this space, as the animal will most likely have a long and weak loin as it develops. Check the chest width by placing 3 fingers or so between the two front legs. Less fingers means a narrower chest. The same goes for the checking between the hocks on the hind legs under the rump, less fingers, the more likely the animal’s hind end is pinched. When assessing animals for medium bone, I look at the legs and feet. In the 2006-2010 ARBA Standard of Perfection, the Harlequin pictured on page 126 is an excellent example of what I want. I find bucks and does that have denser fur, slightly shorter, fatter and wider hind feet from toe to hock (e.g. comparing the shape of snowshoes to skis), the body weight is better supported and they are less likely to develop sore hocks. Ears should be of proper length and have substance; the fur on the outside of the ear should be dense. It is best not to keep animals that have a European Standard Type Harlequin fur, which is a longer, silky, slow roll back type fur. You should be breeding from animals that have genetically inherited the flyback type fur, which conforms to the ARBA commercial normal fur standard. Animals having a good quick flyback fur with good texture and density will have a shorter fur, which will give the appearance of the color deeper down on the hair shaft having less of a brindling effect and cleaner demarcation. These are some of the steps I’m taking to improve my Harlequins, with them continuing to be a work in progress.
So to sum up this article, assess your rabbits for good body type, maintain ideal size, and good medium bone, on which to build better muscled bodies, to achieve firm flesh condition and proper fly back fur, to enhance the color and markings, thus taking the steps to achieve the ideal Harlequin.
“Type” and the Harlequin