The rings were not competition size, but rather a more accommodating gauge that the experienced jousters call "Hula Hoops." And you wouldn't say the horses galloped as much as they strolled, led by a handler walking next to them.

Still, as a succession of novice riders bobbed through the jousting course set up Sunday on the lawn of the Hampton Mansion in Towson, trying to spear rings on the tip of a pointed lance, the most common outcome was a valiant miss.

Marcia Lang, a 71-year-old nurse who lives nearby, nailed two out of three and was among the top performers.

"If I'd had to do that myself it would have been virtually impossible," said Lang. "And at a gallop?" she added, ending the thought with a scrunch of her face.

A team of four experienced jousters also put on a full-throttled display of Maryland's official individual state sport yesterday, led by Vicki Betts, president of the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association. It was just an exhibition - a few dozen passes through the arches, then some rides and pictures for the crowd - but it was all part of enjoying an activity they love while trying to share and promote a sport that is often asked to explain its sanctioned status as one of Maryland's official pleasures.

Jousting isn't the most accessible of pastimes. You need a horse, for one thing, preferably a strong and docile one. And you need a collection of gear that can't be found in any sporting goods store - or even in most equestrian stores. Jousters make their own rings and the arches they hang from, and find craftsmen to custom-build their lances.

Like a lot of jousters, Betts said her first lance was a broomstick.

"I got into it one day when a neighbor came down and said 'they're jousting down the street,' and I came out and said 'they're doing what?'" said Betts, who lives in the Gamber community of Carroll County.

Joyce Barnett, 50, from northern Baltimore County, used to joust as a child but gave it up in favor of marriage and family life, until rediscovering the sport five or six years ago. Her daughters and husband have since taken it up. Barnett was among the experienced demonstrators Sunday, perched atop her horse, Cloudy, lancing quarter-sized rings at a light gallop. The smallest rings in a competitive event are no larger than a Lifesaver, and seem hardly to fit on the tip of the lance.

"A lot of the jousts are held in conjunction with church events, sometimes there's a joust followed by a picnic, we might camp - it's just a great family event," said Barnett.

Besides her jousting gear, Betts also brings a microphone to some jousts, for explaining the sport to the crowd. People still come half-expecting an evil Black Knight or waiting to see riders knocked from their horses.

Jousting was named the official state sport by the General Assembly in 1962, and enthusiasts have often had to defend its status against other Maryland sporting pursuits. Notable was the drive to elevate duckpin bowling to official status. Jousting also parried the supporters of lacrosse, which was declared Maryland's official team sport in 2004.

Betts, who sports a "Got Jousting?" sticker on her truck, said the official title is mostly just a novelty, and that the status of jousting in Maryland is determined primarily by the 90 or so active jousters who maintain a regular tournament schedule from April to October and travel the state for demonstration events like Sunday's.

"We get no funding from the state, we're not funded by corporations, we don't have an endless bank account, we all have day jobs," said Betts, a dental hygienist. "But we love it, and we'll maintain it."

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