The Knight of St. Mark's, reigning champion of tournament jousting, grimly clambered onto his palomino horse, lifted his sharp lance, and brandished it at the reviewing stand across the field. A voice rang out, "Charge, Sir Knight, Charge!"

The knight squinted and sighted down the long field, glanced at the crowds gathered on the sidelines, then turned to his ladey-in-waiting for a parting boost.

"It's really just like driving a car," he assured her. "All I have to do is steer her straight down there."

With that, the Knight of St. Mark's - also known as Mike Vertz - spurred his horse down the battered turf of the Tucker Road Community Center in Oxon Hill tacking his turn at the automotive age's answer to a medieval, noble an once very bloody sport: jousting.

The rules have changed a little. Instead of fighting to the death with their lances and horses. Vertz and the other jousters who competed last Sunday in the Oxon Hill Jousting Tournament - one of 24 ushc events held in Maryland each year - stabbed at small, iron rigns hung from wooden frames along the 80-yard course.

Each "knight," when called, had nine seconds to cover the field while attempting to spear rings from three evenly spaced frames. The knight who had captured the most rings at the end of three rides was declared the winner.

Though they still bear the titles of their predecessors, the dozen or so men and one woman who jousted last week bore little resemblance to ancient nobles out to win for kingdoms and glory. Most of them were quiet, sunburned farmers who, week after week for years, have taken a day of to drive to small towns and race tracks on the professional jousting circuit for a stab at small cash prizes and an occasional trophy.

Even the veterans have a hard time explaining their strange hobby. Phil Clarke, Knight of the Little Red Wagon and a former national jousting champion who has competed for 38 years, says only, "It's better than showing horses, because it's not subjective. It's just you and the horse out there, and if you win, there's no one who can tell you you didn't."

Comradeship must be part of the attraction. Vertz, for example, took pointers from his Jefferson neighbor, Wayne Tucker, when he started jousting 13 years ago. Now Vertz is the defending national champion, Tucker is the defending Maryland champion and a former national champion, and a friendly, kidding rivalry prevails between the two men as they joust against each other on summer weekends.

"It's a family sport, it's a traditional sport, and we all work together to preserve its heritage, said Vertz, who will defend his national title next month against horsemen from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania on a course that will be set up on the Washington Mall. "We don't want it to get super-competitive, like horse-racing. Basically, it's just a hobby, a way to get away from the farm for a day and run the horses."

At Oxon Hill Tucker prevailed in a close competition with Vertz and Clarke. After each man - and three others - had captured all nine possible rings on their three rides, a ride-off was held to determine the winner. On each successive round, the diameter of the ring was reduced - from a starting point of one inch to three-quarters of an inch, then to a half inch.

With the rings at one-half inch, hardly wide enough to push a pencil through. Tucker speared all three as his horse rode at a gallop past the three frames. After further ride-offs, Clarke finished second and Vertz third.

"Pretty much an average day," Tucker said as he prepared to accept his trophy amid much medieval pomp. "But I feel good. I was due for a first. It's a good way to spend the day."