LEONARDTOWN -- "The rings are hung; the track is clear. Charge, fair maiden."
Upon the announcer's command, Mikayla Miller of St. Leonard, aboard the horse Tyke, raced down an 80-foot jousting course, lance in hand. Covering the distance in less than 9 seconds and keeping her arm and upper body as still as possible, she rode through three arches and speared the half-inch ring hanging from each of them.
Competing at the St. Mary's County Fair Joust tournament last weekend, the semiprofessional rider performed well enough to qualify at that level for the state championship next Saturday in Crownsville.
Miller, 15, also entered the professional contest and finished in first place, beating jousters who ranged in age from 27 to 64 years old.
"It's fun going up against the older guys … and being able to compete with them," Miller said. "They're really good, so it pushes us to work harder and do better."
Maryland Jousting Tournament Association president Vicki Betts, 63, of Finksburg said the age range of competitors sets jousting apart from other sports.
"If you're a novice rider, you may have someone in your class who's 7, 8 or in their 50s and just took up the sport," Betts said. "The difference is most lacrosse players over the age of — and I'm being generous here — 28 are no longer competing … but in jousting overall, age is not a factor."
Jousting became Maryland's official state sport in 1962 by then-State Sen. Henry Fowler. His son, Henry Fowler Jr., 64, of Mechanicsville has been jousting for 59 years, but last weekend marked the first time in eight years that he competed instead of helping run a tournament. He said getting back in the saddle was "scary."
"I've pleasure-ridden, but I haven't ridden jousting in a while, and it is something that you learn to do. It's very involved," Fowler said. "It takes training of the rider and the horse. It's just not something that comes easy."
The concept of jousting sounds simple enough: Use a lance to catch as many of the three rings hanging in the straight path as possible. Competitors go through the course three times, capturing a total of up to nine rings.
But the simple rules become difficult when paired with an animal who has a mind of his own and with incredibly small rings. The novice class starts with the largest rings, which are 13/4 inches in diameter, or about the size of a Dixie bath cup, while professional-class riders' rings start at 1 inch. If two or more competitors tie after their three runs through the course, the ring size goes down one-quarter inch for the next run, and the riders get one chance at each size until the tie is broken. The smallest rings used in jousting are a quarter-inch inch in diameter — about the size of a Lifesaver.
The rings are created by hand-weaving rope around metal rings, then coating the hoop with white paint or shoe polish to make them more visible. Lances can be custom-made from either steel and wood, or fashioned from household objects such as pool cues or broom handles.
Lily Fisher, 17, of Lusby said that when she started jousting eight years ago, she trained using a dowel rod for a lance and Dixie cups for rings.
"My dad bought a dowel and took a big butcher's knife and made it into a caveman stick. He just chopped off the end and shaved it into a point," Fisher said. "We practiced with Dixie cups duct-taped to the ends of jumping standards."
Betts said competitors often use one another's equipment and horses.
"A lot of times you're sharing horses, sharing lances. Everybody helps everybody," Betts said. "That's what makes jousting so special."
Fisher said that for riders to aim precisely enough, they need to stand on the saddle, letting their legs move with the horse while keeping their upper bodies steady enough that the lance doesn't move. Meanwhile, they must concentrate on keeping the horse, which is trained to run in a straight line, calm.
"In order to catch rings that small, you have to keep your complete upper body still," the semiprofessional rider said. "Your heels work as shock absorbers. … You have to learn to control the horse with your legs because you can't control the horse with one hand on the reins."
Betts said that relying on an animal can make the sport unpredictable.
"A horse is not a machine," she said. "There are days you aim and you and your horse are one and the rings just float onto your lance, and there are other days I'm not sure they hung anything up there. That's part of the sport."
Jackie Rosenthal, 54, of Pikesville, added that riders should not overwork their horses.
"Animals sour, so it's healthy to give them a mental-health break," Rosenthal said. "You have a living being as your partner, so you'd better have respect for it, because it's the reason you're jousting."
Not only do jousters gain respect for their horses, but they also learn to support their fellow riders. Rosenthal said the way jousters encourage one another is unique to the sport.
"I love the camaraderie and support. And it's genuine. It teaches sportsmanship," said Rosenthal, who was not competing but has been jousting for 11 years. "It's a life lesson that pays off in business and relationships that I don't think soccer or football give to you."
Rosenthal said part of the reason jousters can develop compassion for their opponents is that the sport is based on individual performance.
"Ultimately you're in a competition with yourself," Rosenthal said. "That person [competing against you] didn't make you lose the ring. You missed the ring."
Betts added that the clear-cut rules make the winner of each competition obvious.
"There's no subjectiveness to jousting," Betts said. "You either have the rings or you don't. We're very competitive against each other, but in the end, the one with the most rings deserves to win."
Given the historical state ties and her positive experiences with the sport, Miller said she hopes more people will realize jousting isn't just a medieval activity.
"A lot of people don't hear about it, so when you say, 'Oh, I do jousting,' they're like, 'Oh, like knocking somebody off the other horse?'" Miller said. "We're trying to get more people to know about it."
Maryland State Championship Joust
Next Saturday, 10 a.m.
Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds, Crownsville
National Jousting Championship
Oct. 11, 10 a.m.
Petersville Farmer's Woods, Brunswick