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JoustingMDOfficialSport StoryImgMaryland’s state sport is fun for the whole family—no medieval dress required.
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Home-madeUnlike other sports, jousting equipment is almost home-made.
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The horse is on his ownThe most important "equipment" jousters agree, is a well-trained horse that responds to verbal commands and can run at a steady pace in a straight line without getting spooked by the overhead arches.
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Starting youngChildren as young as 2 years old start at a walk with an adult alongside leading the horse.
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"Equipment"The rings, which range from 1 3/4 to 1/4 inch in diameter, come from local hardware stores or harness shops and are wrapped with cotton cord and dipped in white shoe polish.
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LancesLance are crafted out of whatever is at hand, such as a rake or shovel with a nail stuck at the end. They can weigh anywhere from one to fifteen pounds.
The horse is on his own
“Maid of Northwind,” the announcer intones, “the rings are hung, the track is clear. Charge, fair maid!” Motionless atop her horse, lance at the ready, eyes fixed straight ahead, the rider gallops down an 80-yard track, determined to spear rings as small as a Life Saver suspended from three overhead arches.
It’s medieval mastery come to modern-day Maryland—the ancient sport of jousting. Practiced throughout the Mid-Atlantic, jousting has been especially associated with the Free State since the days of Lord Baltimore. In 1962, the legislature declared it the official state sport. Currently, there are five jousting clubs or associations in Maryland, which hold some 40 tournaments and exhibitions a year at farms, parks, and churchyards across the state.
Some of the trappings of medieval chivalry still prevail, but jousting today is largely a family affair, where Sir Knight and Fair Maid are likely to be grandfather and granddaughter. “What other sport do you know that involves everybody from toddlers to people in their 80s?” says the Maid of Northwind, a.k.a. Vicki Betts of Finksburg.
From the Middle Ages to Maryland
Jousting began in the Middle Ages as man-to-man combat between knights, a practice that understandably took a considerable toll on the ranks. With the advent of gunpowder, spearing one’s opponent became an outmoded form of warfare, but “running at the rings” persisted as a way for knights to demonstrate their skill. Popular as a sport among the landed gentry throughout Maryland’s early history, ring jousting is now enjoyed by people from all walks of life and from farm to suburbia.
About half of all tournaments begin with a parade of contestants in medieval garb. Even horses are decked out in elaborate costumes, sometimes fashioned from draperies or bed sheets. In keeping with tradition, jousters compete under titles inspired by hometowns (Knight of Caroline County), street names (Maid of Rabbit Hill Road), even their horses’ names (Knight of Beauty). Some stick with the medieval theme—Knight of Sir Lancelot, Knight of Excalibur—while others take the humorous approach: Knight of the Missing Rings, Knight of Would If I Could, and Maid of Visa (always charged!).
The Rules of the Rings
Unlike in other sports, there is no standardized jousting equipment; in fact, most of it is homemade. Lances, which can weigh anywhere from one to 15 pounds, are crafted from whatever is at hand, such as a rake or shovel handle, even a billiards cue, with a nail stuck in the end. Betts’ first lance was a broomstick with a tip made from a metal fold-out pants hanger.
The rings, which range from 1 3/4 inches to 1/4 inch in diameter, come from local hardware stores or harness shops and are wrapped with cotton cord and dipped in white shoe polish.
The most important “equipment,” jousters agree, is a well-trained horse that responds to verbal commands and can run at a steady pace in a straight line without getting spooked by the overhead arches.
“The horse is on his own, because the rider’s job is to spear the rings,” says Mike Virts of Knoxville, a 10-time national jousting champion and 19-time state champion. “The people who win are those who have a dependable horse that can run the same week after week, whether it’s cold, windy, muddy, a carnival atmosphere, or whatever.” It takes about three years to train a horse, he adds, and some animals never develop a temperament for the sport.
The rules of competition are simple: Each rider gets three runs, or charges, attempting to spear three rings on each charge. If several jousters are tied, they compete with smaller rings until the tie is broken. Riders must complete a charge in eight or nine seconds, depending on where the tournament is held. (Like the equipment, that rule is not yet standardized.)