"Knight of Well Water III, prepare to charge." I search among the horses and riders standing around on the grass to see who's moving his horse up to the starting line. "The rings are hung. The track is clear. Charge, Sir Knight." And with that, Vance Leighty tears down the track on his horse, lance in hand, eyes straight ahead, the horse's hoofs kicking up debris.
Leighty wears no medieval chain mail, nor is he galloping toward an oncoming rider. This is no Renaissance festival. Dressed in jeans and a maroon polo shirt, Leighty is engaging in "ring jousting," which, believe it or not, has been Maryland's state sport since Gov. Millard Tawes signed it into law in 1962. With tournaments just about every weekend from late spring to early fall at parks, church festivals, fairgrounds and equestrian centers, jousting is alive and well in the mid-Atlantic.
Leighty's goal in his run down the track is to spear three rings in a row with the needle-sharp tip of his lance. He and his horse gallop through three equally spaced wooden arches, capturing the ring hanging from each, in under nine seconds. If, during three "charges" down the 80-foot track he captures all of the rings, he receives a perfect score of 9.
The task is no walk in the park, says Rob Cotter, Knight of Sugarloaf, who started jousting when he was 12 and continued to do so for 40 more years until his horse got too old. He probably won't break in another. "You've got to get the horses to where they're used to the track, not shying away from the arches, people, the judging stand," says Cotter, 56, whose wife and two daughters joust. "The horse has to learn to pace himself. You're not going to get good on a horse without two years of experience."
And indeed, on this gorgeous July day in Barnesville, Md., with the track dappled by sunlight streaming through the trees, the young Knight of Double Trouble is living a nightmare true to his self-chosen moniker. He is finding it exceedingly difficult to get his horse to walk forward, let alone run. After the first arch, the horse is spooked by something. It starts dancing backward, whinnying. Onlookers seem tense and sympathetic, collectively willing the horse forward. The knight stays stone-faced. Finally, a helpful horseman runs down the track past the steed, making clicking noises with his mouth, showing the horse how it's done and managing to egg it on.
Fortunately, there is a chance for one "do-over" if the knight has "dropped his lance," indicating he is no longer attempting to spear the rings. But it's kind of like taking a ball in baseball by not swinging the bat. You can do it only so many times.
You don't have to be devoted to ancient cavalry arts to enjoy a modern jousting tourney. At the 129th annual St. Mary's Church supper and jousting tournament in July, a grassy field is filled with horse trailers as smoke wafts over from the grill cooking hundreds of chicken parts. The closest many of these onlookers will get to wielding a lance is spearing a hunk of potato with a fork. But everyone's lunch is enhanced by the sight of practicing riders running their horses down the track, aiming index fingers toward the arches as if lances were in their hands. Off to the side, children play ring-toss games and lick dripping snow cones, while adults buy homemade cakes and raffle tickets.
There's not a suit of armor or oversize turkey drumstick in sight. But plenty of friendly people willing to explain the details of their passion.
And also willing to support the riders. Double Trouble is in the novice class, where the rings are 13/4 inches wide, about the size of a Snapple lid. The spectators are nothing if not sympathetic to the knight's plight. Many are family and friends who do the tournament circuit and know many of their Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania competitors.
This other sport of kings dates back, in this area, at least to the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, who founded the colony of Maryland in 1634. Jousting tournaments were a favorite pastime of early settlers. They are a remnant of the Middle Ages, when jousting was a way to wage war in Europe. Once gunpowder was invented, the quaint notion of knocking someone off his horse was tossed aside as a battle strategy. Men jousting against men for the fun of it was outlawed as injuries piled up. But the skill and precision required have allowed jousting to hang on as a sport over the years.
In the second half of the 1800s, a lot of southern churches raised funds for Civil War memorials by holding the tournaments. Now church tournaments help raise funds for the church. I contribute my part by chowing down on heaping helpings of chicken, slaw, green beans, potatoes, rolls and applesauce.
Many jousting clubs retain the pageantry and traditions of medieval tournaments, dressing themselves and their horses in colorful costumes. But that isn't the case in Barnesville.
Spectators park themselves on hay bales or the grass, mere feet away from the charging horses. The riders are a sight: lances poised, bodies lifted off their horses, eyes intent on the rings, some words murmured to their trusty steeds as they attempt each ring. The participants ride like jockeys, upper bodies stock-still if possible, knees acting like shock absorbers. "This is different from other equestrian sports but requires equestrian ability at the highest levels," says announcer Roger Hayden, the Howard Cosell of jousting. Riders' "knight" and "maid" names are self-chosen and can be related to farm names or locations, historical events or really anything else that strikes their fancy.
And the horses. Some real beauts. A speckled appaloosa that looks like a Jackson Pollock canvas. A shiny pinto, gleaming white and brown. These are not your tired, trail-ridden nags.
This sport is a far cry from the costumed stereotype, with armored M'Lords and wimpled M'Ladies. Not that ring jousters shun the family fun of a Renaissance festival. "It's not the same thing, but we still like to see the riders get knocked off their horses," says Buck Schuyler, 53, from Easton, Md. "But we wanted to get away from the medieval jousting to show that ring jousting is something different."
Besides, 99 percent of what goes on at a Renaissance spectacle is choreographed, says Ken Enfield. He did festival jousting for 14 years, taking the blow of the lance to his chest, falling off his horse and getting up to engage in a sword fight.
Enfield's family soon will groom its fourth generation of jousters. His 2-year-old nephew, Noah, likely will be introduced to the saddle in three years. Enfield's father had jousted for 55 years before he broke his ankle coming off his horse.
It makes sense that extended families who own their horses carry on the tradition. It's not as if some city slicker can rent a horse one day, cart it to a venue and expect to have any hope of spearing a ring. It takes hours of practice, like any sport. Besides, try going to a sporting goods store and asking for a lance. They're all custom-made. "People think it's arcane, or weird, but it's no more unique than golf," says Hayden. "It's just that more people do golf."
For their efforts at St. Mary's, the lords of the rings -- and one lady -- get trophies, cash prizes ranging from $25 to $100, and fake green-leaf wreaths to crown their fair maids with, or, if female, to have her gallant knight crown her with. Modern jousters might eat quiche, who knows. But apparently, real jousting men don't wear leafy crowns.