Maryland's state sport is alive and well thanks to dedicated kids learning ring jousting. (Anna Muckerman / Baltimore Sun video)
Sitting on the roots of a shade tree, Delaney Hawks squints and fans away a cloud of gnats. Around her, other kids joke to pass the time. But the 8-year-old’s face grows serious as she watches older jousters kick up dust on the track. In a matter of minutes, it will be time for her to saddle up.
At least a quarter of the roughly 100 jousters who practice Maryland’s state sport are under 18. Many of the top riders are teens, but younger children can also be serious competitors. Longtime enthusiast Peter Cochran, 70, believes the number of young jousters is growing.
“Every time I go to a joust, there’s more and more children, some as young as 3 or 4, being led through on a horse that knows to walk,” Cochran said earlier this month at the 97th Petersville Farmers Club Joust near Brunswick, Maryland.
Despite her small stature, Delaney does not need to be led through the three arches that make up an American jousting track. Atop her team’s trained jousting horse, Maggie, she raises her lance and trots forward.
“I get to ride the horses and it’s a fun experience,” Delaney said before adding that jousting is not without challenges. “Sometimes the horses won’t move over or they’ll go too fast and won’t calm down or they don’t want to go.”
Aside from Medieval reenactments, armored jousting ended centuries ago. In 1950, Maryland enthusiasts organized the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association to standardize the rules and keep the sport of ring jousting alive.
Three brass rings wrapped in string and dipped in white shoe polish for visibility hang from wooden arches. Riders maintain a certain pace while trying to capture the rings with a lance, the tip of which measures 1/8 of an inch.
The largest ring has an inside diameter of an inch and ¾ . More experienced jousters face smaller rings (the quarter-inch often used for tie-breakers is about the size of a Lifesaver candy) and are expected to complete the 80-foot track in 9 seconds or less. The electric timer is the only piece of equipment that the riders and clubs don’t make themselves.
Around the state, jousting tournaments are held almost every weekend during the summer until the Maryland and national championships in October. Jousters come from all over the state and often belong to one of five clubs, including the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association, that are spread geographically. Jousting clubs also exist in the surrounding states.
“The one thing that the competitors really like about it is that there’s very little judging. It’s not like some of these Olympic sports where they have to review videos over and over again. You get the rings or you don’t. It’s that simple,” said Cochran.
Delaney competes in the novice division, which allows her unlimited time as long as she keeps moving. In the future, she hopes to move up to the amateur, semi-pro and pro divisions where riders of the same skill level compete regardless of age, gender or other factors.
Each rider pays just $5 per division they compete in. Annual dues for some clubs are also $5. Although jousting fees pale in comparison to other organized and equestrian sports, riding lessons and caring for a horse can be expensive. Delaney and Grace ride team horse Maggie, but many participants bring their own horses.
In the novice division, Delaney faced the 5-year-old Urijah Bodin, who was all smiles as he was led down the track. Also in the competition, 13-year-old Grace Riddile won first place in the novice division before competing against the amateur riders.
“I wish I had done better because I was reaching for some. On the first go, I was reaching for all of them, so I didn’t get any,” Delaney said.
Family members, friends and passionate non-riders like Cochran make up the large group of tournament organizers and volunteers who support the jousters. Cochran, who lives in Port Republic, said the family-oriented nature of jousting gives him hope for the future of the community.
“It’s competitive when you’re going down the track, but you’ll find that the competition does not go off the track in any type of rivalry. It’s a family sport,” he said.
From the sideline, Jeff Hawks, 36, said he is proud of his daughter, the only member of the family who jousts (although her brother is set to try it at summer camp). At first, Delaney wanted to ride horses, then one of her mom’s students introduced her to jousting. It was a match.
“She’s more of an introvert but she’s definitely a go-getter,” said Hawks, whose family lives in St. Leonard. “She sets her goals on how many rings she’s going to get when she shows up, so she’s definitely competitive.”
Once, Delaney fell during practice. It was a momentary inconvenience. Hawks said jousting gives his daughter a chance to work with older girls, like Grace, who have taken her under their wing. It also gives her a sense of independence and “her own thing.” At the Petersville joust, her third, she continued to prove her capability.
“All of our practices are always in a ring so it’s always fenced in,” Hawks said. “During our first joust, we’re in a field and at the end of this track is a cornfield and so at first, I’m like ‘oh boy, here we go.’ She did her first practice run and she was completely in control and so far, so good.”
Grace and Delaney share the same coach at Tynewydd Riding Program in St. Leonard, who is impressed with the progress they’ve made. Viviane Fischer-Flaherty, 57, credits Delaney’s “zen attitude and nerves of steel” for allowing her to pick up jousting in just a year.
Although kid jousters wear modern helmets and club t-shirts, riders choose a jousting name that harkens back to Medieval roots. Like a word game, riders choose between “knight of,” “lady of” or “maid of” and then add their farm, street, town or other identifying feature to complete the name. Each moniker is unique and follows the rider through tournaments: Delaney goes by Maid of St. Leonard, while 5-year-old Urijah Bodin calls himself Knight of Blue.
As Delaney approaches the end of the track, she keeps Maggie calm until the official signal is given: “The rings are hung and the track is clear. Charge, fair maid!”
If you go
Spectators are welcome at jousts, which are free to attend. Save the date for one of these tournaments, or visit marylandjousting.com for a full schedule.
Queen Anne’s County Fair Joust
5 p.m. on Aug. 10 at 100 Dulin Clark Road, Centreville
Fairplay Day Joust
Noon on Aug. 18 at 18309 Manor Church Road, Boonsboro