I would like to tell you that once the armor is fitted, the helmet goes on and once the visor is down, Charlie Andrews is all business, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Equal parts champion and court jester his six foot four, two hundred and fifty pound frame mounted on a war horse makes an imposing figure to all who regard him. But if you’re standing close as he passes, you hear Charlie humming heroic themes, “Ta-da-da-daaaa!” while he rides past the crowd, waving to small children and pretty girls who beam back at him.
The occasion is like no other I’ve ever seen, a jousting clinic. You may know Andrews from the National Geographic Channel show Knights of Mayhem. What Andrews hopes to do is create interest in the sport for which he is passionate, jousting. You may have just cocked an eyebrow at me having called it a sport, and fashioning a visual exhibition into a sport is his charge. So today, with the help of local sponsorship from Town & Country, about a dozen young women make their first steps into becoming jousting knights at the Equine Excellence Clinic at Windy Knoll Farms in Sullivan. This horse training facility is more accustomed to the pomp and precision of dressage and western riders. Today it is the epicenter of something very different; the shattering and splintering of twelve foot wooden lances on the shields of armored knights.
“We’ll use these balsam-tipped lances today so nobody gets hurt, too bad…” Charlie jokes. “The whole point of this clinic and these demonstrations is to foster a growing interest in the sport and set up a farm system for what we’re hoping will become a big-league arena sport, full contact jousting.” Talking to Charlie you get a certain vibe from the man. His expertise with horses goes understated with all the visual pageantry going on around him. At forty-four years of age he is part warrior, part businessman, part emissary of his sport,part athlete, part court jesterand a good part adrenaline junky. Standing in his literal shadow, it’s easy to imagine him in his “other job” as a mixed martial arts fighter.
His opponent is no shrinking violet either.
Knights of Iron Captain Dale Walter of Howell, Michigan is currently ranked #3 in the national jousting championship rankings and represents Team USA in international competition. As I speak to him he is eating a hot dog, something that catches me a little off guard for an athlete in his mid-forties. “I live in the gym. Every spare moment of the day, every day I am in the gym.”I asked if he has a mantra when he mounts up to do battle with an opponent. “No. Absolutely not. You have way too much to think about, jousting is extremely focused and requires too much concentration.” Dale explains that a horse is a prey animal and it takes a great amount of training and trust between horse and rider to overcome that and charge another knight, both horses moving at fifteen to twenty miles an hour.
Growing up on a ranch, Dale has been a horseman all along. “Sometimes people come to me and say they think they’d be a great jouster, but they don’t know how to ride. That’s like saying you think you would be really good at hockey if you only knew how to skate!” Teetering on your mount, wearing a hundred pounds of armor, looking through a slit in a heavy helmet that keeps you from turning your head, Dale paint a picture of what it’s like to live the knight’s life. You have one hand on the reins, because the other hand is holding a twelve foot lance that you somehow must have pointed at a moving target about the size of a dinner platter. You control your horse mostly with indications from your legs and knees and you need to have him moving at the right speed, the right gait, the right lead, and he’s absolutely terrified of the horse and armored knight coming at him…yeah, that’s a lot to think about.
The concussion of the lance on your shield staggers. Timbers splinter and explode in front of you in shards. You pull up on the reigns and shake the cobwebs out as the lights come back on in your brain. You focus on your opponent and bring the horse about, drop the stub of a broken lance while the squire hands up a new one. Square the horse up, bring the lance tip down and wait forthe referee’s command, “Lay on!”
With any luck, one day jousting will return to stadiums full of cheering fans. Today, it is Charlie and Dale, and a handful of eager students, squires and knights in a stables arena, in Northeast Ohio.