Original photo © 2006 by Alissa Behn

© 2005 by David Bareford

(Reproduced by permission of the author)

They were destriers, chargers, coursers. Proud, powerful names for equally mighty horses bred to catapult the armored knight into the forefront of battle. From the twelfth century to the fifteenth, the warhorse reigned supreme as the most feared weapon of European warfare. Thundering hooves rumbled the ground from England and France to Asia Minor and the Holy Land; it was said the shock of a Crusader charge could “carry through the walls of Babylon.”

In 1979, two young performers set out to recapture the glory and power of the knightly destrier, striving to create a tournament of arms for the patrons of the New York Renaissance Faire. They never guessed they would become the foremost theatrical jousting company in America and would give hundreds of performers the chance to experience firsthand the ancient bond between the horse and knight.Their company, the Hanlon-Lees Action Theater, is the oldest performance company in America dedicated to the art of medieval-style jousting. Founders Kent Shelton and Robin Wood turned their equestrian passions into a lifelong collaboration with horses to produce spectacles of pageantry, skill, and exciting mounted combat.

When Shelton and Wood were contracted to create their show, jousting was practiced only by one group of re-enactors who did not perform for the public: there was no model for the theatrically-trained duo to follow. Shelton knew horses — he began riding as a child on the Chincoteague pony purchased by his grandfather, and later drove a carriage in New York City. Wood was an experienced performer who, like Shelton, had expertise in stage combat and theatrical violence. The two immersed themselves in research, even obtaining a personal tour of the private arms and armor vaults of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art that included a white-gloved perusal of crumbling medieval manuscripts on knighthood. Finally, with a growing historical understanding and a looming performance deadline, they started to train in earnest.

One question confronted them immediately: what kind of horses should they use? Some equine historians see the echoes of the warhorse in the Percheron or Shire, but most agree that history has hopelessly mingled the bloodlines of the true medieval destrier. Shelton ultimately chose the American Quarter Horse, liking its stocky musculature, sprinter’s speed, and “flashier” look when compared to the more ponderous draft breeds.

The training regimen they developed remains fundamentally intact more than twenty years later. A horse is first “auditioned” before purchase: it should stand between 15 and 16 hands, it shouldn’t panic or shy when strangers approach or a shield is banged near it. Large heraldic flags are brought near the animal and waved about as they will be in the panoply of the show. Many horses tend to balk at this stage, especially when the rider is waving a flag several feet above the horse’s head. Horses making the grade are then corralled in the arena where they will be performing, to acclimate them to the space. New, unsure horses are reassured by placing them with veteran mounts, but this was a luxury not afforded to the company in their formative years. Through a gradual reward process — usually handfuls of sweet feed — the new horses are taught what is expected of them.

One oddity the mounts must accept is a rider falling from their back. In every show, at least one knight is dismounted by his opponent, rolling from the saddle to the ground in what appears to be a most ungainly and uncontrolled manner. While these saddle falls are all strictly choreographed, horses can react in widely varying ways to the experience. Some get spooked and bolt while others, especially those trained for calf roping, come to an immediate stop. Shelton prefers horses with bulldogging or polo training, because they keep moving after a rider has dismounted: a sudden stop can interrupt the knight’s fall and make it even more dangerous. The process of training a new horse for jousting takes about three weeks, but in time-critical emergencies the Hanlon-Lees have accelerated that span to a matter of days with well-conditioned horses. The hardest thing to simulate in training, Shelton says, is a crowd of two thousand cheering spectators encircling the arena: a rookie horse’s reaction to such a spectacle cannot be determined until the first performance begins!

The tack for the horse performer must conform to both practical and costume requirements. The Hanlon-Lees prefer McClellan-style saddles for their antique look and easy exit for falls. Other styles can be used—Plantation and Endurance saddles are popular as well — as long as they are not recognizably modern Western or English models. The horses wear leather trappings or cloth caparisons, all bearing brightly-colored heraldic designs to match the chosen colors of the knight. An articulated steel armor piece called the crinet protects the neck while a chamfron, or face plate, is often used to ornament the head.

At most Renaissance faire venues, the Hanlon-Lees put on three different shows each day. The first show features lightly-armored knights competing in an equestrian obstacle course. The contestants hurl spears at targets as they gallop past, hack pole-mounted watermelons into exploding pink sprays, and joust the quintain, the historically-accurate lance target that swivels to swing its own blow back at the attacker. All of the maneuvers are completed while negotiating jumps, slaloms, and barrel-racing style turns; riders get points for accuracy and speed. The second show features ring jousting, another traditional knightly test of skill. Knights must spur forward at top speed while aiming their lance to pass through a ring four inches in diameter — no more than two and a half inches wider than their lance tip. Other jousting companies place the rings in wooden ring posts, but the Hanlon-Lees snatch the small hoops directly from the fingers of squires standing in the arena. The squires also throw rings high into the air for the knights to catch on their lances as they ride past.

The final show of the day is a tournament of arms like those at the beginning of the 14th century. A Master of Arms coordinates the event, ensuring all proper ceremony is followed to honor the attending Renaissance faire royalty and that courtesy is maintained between the knights. Squires and pages whip the packed crowds into a fury of cheers for their favorite champion and boos for his adversaries. After the chivalric courtesies are observed, the fully-armored knights retire to opposite ends of the field and take up their lances. No tilt rail or barrier separates the combatants: “open-field” jousting allows more mobility in the arena. The trumpet sounds. The knights charge, guiding their sprinting steed with their knees as they raise their shields and lower their lances. A report like a gunshot marks their impact and one of the lances bursts into splinters as a knight is knocked backward off his galloping mount. The crowd cheers, or groans in dismay. Often, the Hanlon-Lees include mounted sword combat and ground fighting in their Joust to the Death. Fights with axes, flails, and even burning torches entertain crowds and keep them cheering for more. Over the years, knightly injuries have included stitches and a half-dozen broken bones (“Jousting is a contact sport,” quips Shelton), but despite the apparent danger, no horse has been hurt in performance in the company’s twenty-five year history. Fences and play biting have inflicted the only equine “combat scars.”

From their humble beginning, the Hanlon-Lees now own a stable of sixteen horses and perform in a nearly year-round circuit of Renaissance faires. Some of their larger venues include King Richard’s Faire in Massachusetts, Bristol Renaissance Festival in Wisconsin, the North and South California Pleasure Faires, the Arizona Renaissance Faire, the Texas Renaissance Festival, and Renaissance faires in Georgia and North Carolina. Renaissance festivals usually produce many shows that feature sword fighting, but the mounted joust has become the centerpiece attraction for nearly every major faire. A few dozen companies other than Shelton’s now perform jousting shows, but the Hanlon-Lees put theatrical jousting “on the map,” and it was the modern warhorse that got them there.