Aug 31, 2009

Charge, Fair Maid!


It’s the stuff of family lore, seen on a faded clipping taped in a scrapbook. Years ago, my teenage aunt was crowned Queen of the Jousting Tournament. It was a big deal in that largely rural farm community near Laurel in the 40's, because the jousters were local heroes and the annual festival was the highlight of the summer.

The joust was staged by the Aicheson family. One of my aunt’s contemporaries, Joe Aicheson, became a champion steeplechase jockey. He still exercises horses in Laurel. Another dashing jouster, Bunk Athey, aka Sir Willifican, Black Knight of Burtonsville, served for many years in the Maryland General Assembly.

Jousting, even before being designated Maryland’s state sport, was an occasion of great merriment. I barely remember most of the tournament festivities. But like most little girls, I never forgot the horses.

Our local jousting field, Willis Hall, was lost when I-95 went through, and my grandfather’s farm is now a housing development. But jousting is still a cherished community activity in other parts of the state, where tournaments celebrate Maryland heritage, pageantry and horsemanship. This weekend I saw the Maryland tradition is still very much alive.

The journey to Prince Frederick and 350+ year old Christ Church was a nostalgic memory of those long ago jousting matches I attended. With a twist. Now, instead of wearing a wreath of flowers and hoping to be crowned Queen of the Tournament, the energetic young ladies I saw were mounted on their own faithful steeds, lances at their sides, awaiting their cue.

“The rings are hung. The field is clear. Charge Fair Maid!”

With that, the aspiring lords and ladies take their tilt at tradition.

Unlike the contact sport associated with Camelot and the RenFest, modern jousting is a demonstration of horsemanship, hand eye coordination and balance. No shish kabobing the opposition in this state. Like target practice or skeet shooting, jousting is a test of marksmanship. Add the mount and motion and you see what a singular skill it is.

The 80 yard flat track has overhead arches similar to giant croquet wickets. Suspended from the top is a device holding a ring no larger than a crochet doily. The object is to skewer the ring with a lance that looks something like a pool cue as your horse passes through the arches.

Sound too easy? Imagine focusing the tip of a long spear on a small object while galloping past. I can’t snare a brass ring from a carousel without falling off the horse. (Yes, it happened.) No way I’d trying anything like this.

The ritual pageantry of the joust is part of the tradition. Contestants are identified by their ancestral estates. I can’t imagine “Lady Michaela Patrick, Maid of Autumn Wind,” introduced at the roller derby. But here it was perfectly poetic.

There is great skill required of horse and rider. Horses are trained to run a steady course and not be distracted by the crowds or the arches they must pass through. They also need to respond to the most subtle commands while their rider focuses on the rings. Since they are a major part of the action, the equine partner needs to be well versed in the sport. Like other equestrian activities, proficiency comes after considerable practice.

The rules are simple – complete the course in the requisite time and snare all three rings. Riders get three attempts. In the case of ties, there are ride-offs with rings of increasingly smaller diameter (they eventually look like Peppermint lifesavers) until a winner emerges.

What I enjoyed most was seeing families participate together, and the response they received from friends and neighbors who look forward to this end of summer ritual every year.

No, our state sport will never fill stadiums or garner million dollar endorsements. It will probably never make ESPN. I doubt it will ever drive tourism or reap tremendous economic benefits.

What it does is remind us of Maryland’s pastoral heritage, where our love of horses endures and our sense of community continues to be celebrated with delightful traditions like this.

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