Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Full Contact Jousting

Before the period of DOOM that befell my family and I, I had planned on writing about Full Contact Jousting, a "new" old sport that made an appearance at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison (that's the Coliseum for us older folks) in August.

Basically, a bunch of guys get together to beat the crap out of each other with big sticks, whilst in armor, on horseback. I enjoy a little raw bloodsport once in a while, provided it takes place between consenting humans. However, is it safe for the horses?

Let's be clear that "Full Contact Jousting" means exactly that. These guys are not shitting around like the "knights" (actors) you see at dinner theater shows or touristy Renaissance fairs. They've got real armor, real lances and are traveling at a fast canter when they come together. Nor are they attempting to just break lances or touch their opponent's shield-- they are aiming to knock the other guy on his ass. Obviously, there are lots of dangers here for both horse and rider.

Not surprisingly, riders and organizers in this sport are as diverse in their safety concerns as people in any other horse sport. On the side of the angels is Shane Adams, trainer/referee on the History Channel's Full Metal Jousting and long-time jouster, who takes strict precautions. Horses wear armor, including "helmets" and eye-protecting face shields (like those police horses wear). They're further protected from lance hits by a six-foot high solid wall between the jousters. As for training, the horses are impeccably trained, and the riders are told not to interfere with them in any way. Riders even have to drop the reins before each impact, so that if they fall, they can't yank accidentally on the horse's mouth. Finally, Adams has a rule: hurt the horse, on accident or on purpose, and you're gone. This was actually enforced on the show, when one competitor punched his horse after it stepped on his foot. The guy was yelled at and booted off almost immediately. In the History Channel's show, points were taken away if you hit anywhere outside of the special shoulder grid, if you dropped your lance too soon, if you did any number of small things that might result in unsafe conditions (aside from those actually planned for). Rules video here. You can read more about the horses, horsemanship and safety precautions involved here. Sounds pretty safe!

Alas, however, other events have not been so safe. Just like rodeos, there's no one set of rules, no standard safety guidelines, and things can get pretty hairy. I've done a lot of Youtube research and from what I can see, in many events, the riders and their horses are separated only by flimsy ropes, the horses have no armor, and safety is secondary to crowd-pleasing, dramatic smashes. The New York Times article here makes it clear that full contact jousting is pretty gory. The author quoted one young joust spectator as saying, "I want to see another guy get paralyzed." Even National Geographic's show, "The Knights of Mayhem," was reported to be nothing but a chest-beating machismo fest, injected with tons of reality-show drama.

Like I said before, I have no problem with consenting humans hurting each other for fun. Hell, if we had more of it, there would be fewer assholes alive right now. The problem is, these guys are using horses as the tools to do it, with little regard for their well-bring.

Speaking of dicks, check out this knight yanking his horse around at high speeds. The horse is obviously frightened or misbehaving, and is weaving wildly, but his rider pushes him on. In the next pass, the horse mis-steps and flips over on his rider. Both survived, but both could have easily died.

An English jouster did die in January of last year, having been speared through the eye and brain-- read the article here.

Check out this video, where jousters aim for decorated targets on each others' heads, and the unprotected horse nearly gets hit by a splintering lance.

In this video, a crew member actually stands in front of a cantering Clydesdale, waving his arms in an effort to make the horse stop. Thankfully for him, the horse did stop-- but the man was close to being pancaked. Apparently this is common practice, because I saw it again and again in videos. Why not train the horse to stop as soon as a rider falls off?

I have to admit, I didn't find so much as one article or video clip of a horse being seriously hurt during a joust. I feel, though, that this has less to do with any humane sentiments in the sport and more to do with money. Even back when the "real" knights were jousting, there were taboos against hurting horses, simply because the costs of buying, feeding and training the massive beasts were so prohibitive. If you accidentally injured or killed another knight's horse, you had to pay him a very large sum, and you might even be banned from the lists. Today, it can't be much different-- I bet no one wants to be sued over the cost of replacing a prized Freisian or a well-trained Percheron.

I want you to know that I endured many cheesy videos in doing the research for this post. It's like the editors said, "Hey, you know what, I bet we could fit in at least six rock songs, three dragon graphics and some random chanting in this ten minute video!"

By far though, this was the craziest video EVER. It's not even real jousting, but I HAVE to include it here just to make you laugh (or cry). I think it's the actual pinnacle of everything redneck, ever:


  1. I read a lot (sadly quite a lot) of fantasy books and I've always wondered if this is a sport that could be done for fun, and safely. I think I would like the challenge of training a draft to joust one day. Thank you for this post!

    1. Hey there, it's not sad to read a lot! I do too, and it's one of the main motivators for writing stuff like this :) I highly recommend checking out the Society of Creative Anachronisms (SCA) which has chapters all over the USA-- they recreate historical stuff, including jousts, and many chapters have an equine group.

  2. Actually, the safety of the horses is taken very seriously. Organizations such as WorldJoust are extremely proffesianal and would not be performing this sport if they and their mount's safety was threatened. Perhaps you should research a sport before you go on a negative rant about it.

    1. Did YOU bother to read my post?? I said some trainers and organizers ARE incredibly safe and described all of the precautions taken by those guys. Perhaps you should bother to read before you comment.