By Lisa K. McDivitt
James Zoppe, short and stocky with shoulder-length silver hair, is known as Sir James of Lockwood, the Red Knight. He says his adrenaline is pumping most when he looks through the narrow slit in his 14-gauge steel helmet and sees a horse coming toward him at full gallop, its rider carrying a 10-foot lance made of lodgepole pine.
This is the world of jousting, rooted in the Middle Ages and now a growing sport across America. There are more than 80 clubs throughout the country, and several training schools. They include Zoppe's own stables in the mountains of Northern California and Roy Cox's 66-acre facility in the hills north of Nashville, Tenn., which has a blacksmith shop, cookhouse and several cabins for student jousters.
Jousting groups regularly hold regional events, the most prominent being the four-day Long’s Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival in Estes Park, Colo., which plays host to more than 20 knights who go at each other before crowds that can total 75,000 over the course of the festival.
“Once you can face a man or a woman charging at you on a horse at 50 miles per hour, and take that blow, and stay on the horse, you really don’t fear much of anything,” said Dustin Stephens, founder of the Fellowship of the Four Winds, a jousting school outside Tyler, Texas. Stephens’s 15-acre ranch has a new jousting arena, and each year he holds a Renaissance fair on his grounds.
The jousting event that gets the most attention is the tilt. In its most common form, two knights on horseback face each other from opposite ends of a 200-foot square arena. Each is dressed in over 50 pounds of armor, including steel breastplates, leg armor and helmets that cover everything but the eyes. In one hand the jousters carry a steel shield that is about three feet high and two feet wide, and in the other a 10-foot-long wooden lance with a blunted tip made of copper.
Horses are also fitted with armor, and during the match each knight rides his steed down a narrow track, separated from the oncoming horseman by a 4-foot-high fence, called a list. Each mount can quickly get up to 25 miles an hour, making the combined speed twice that, and creating an explosive encounter when the knights meet.
The object of the sport is not to de-horse an opponent, but to strike his shield solidly in the center, while deflecting the oncoming blow so it slides off to the side.
“You hit, you impact, you feel ‘Wham!’” said William Hamersky, 49, who works in public relations for the mosquito abatement unit in the San Francisco Bay area. Hamersky’s interest in sword fighting and horseback riding led him to jousting, and he began training with Zoppe a little over a year ago.
The scoring system in jousting is geared to penalize moves that cause injury. No points, for instance, are awarded for de-horsing someone, and points are taken off if the lance strikes high or low on a shield so as to spear the opponent, as happened in Morrison’s case. A jouster can also lose points for losing control of the horse, of if the horse jumps out of the list.
With interest in jousting on the increase, the Long’s Peak festival in Colorado is planning to start its own training school that would run the weekend before the annual competition. James Durward, a jousting enthusiast who works full time as the director of the festival, believes that danger is part of the sport’s allure.
“You play golf all your life, never get a bruise,” Durward said. “But you get out there and joust, and you have something to brag about.”