Lititz couple trains Renaissance faire jousters, horses

By on August 9, 2017

Beth Brown (left), and Rob Earhart during a practice session for jousting exhibition. Krystal Dorsey holds the rings.

Renaissance faires are held from California to New England and attract thousands of tourists who enjoy reliving the culture of England from medieval times through the Tudor period. One of the highlights of any faire — especially for the youngsters — is the jousting and battles by knights on horses.

Regionally, Renaissance faires are held during the summer and fall in surrounding states including two here in Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh faire runs in late summer-fall and attracts about 55,000. Closer to home since 1981, at the Mount Hope Estate in Manheim, the Pennsylvania Renaissance faire attracts more than 250,000 people on 35 acres in a summer-fall season.

Although visitors can interact with actors in period dress, see exhibits of the era, and taste the food of the time, one of the highlights of any faire is when the knights, dressed in armor and regalia, take to the arena for a jousting contest on special horses or engage in mock battles with period weapons eliciting “oohs and ahs” from the spectators.

The jousting knights are a theatrical production, but with a lot of uncertainty that you don’t get in a typical stage show. Things can go wrong. These are specialized actor-athletes who master the art of ancient combat and also can ride a galloping horse while balancing a shield and a 10-foot lance. And many times, behind the 12-pound mask is a strong horsewoman and not the burly man you might expect.

Roundtable Productions’ Kate Hopkins serves as the narrator for jousting at the Renaissance Fair.

Pre-season training, just like baseball, is key for the performers who bring the realistic action to the arena at any faire. Roundtable Productions’ (Lititz) Rob Earhart, a master blacksmith and craftsman of period weaponry and a jousting knight at faires across the country, has been training would-be knights with his partner, Kate Hopkins, since 2001.

A Renaissance faire, depending on its size, can have as few as two to four knights or as many as eight to 10. There are about eight jousting companies across the country and the action is as close to authentic as possible — with safety in mind — re-creating the jousting tournaments of the Middle Ages and later.

Jousting, even at its beginning, unlike the movie renditions, when lances pierced armor gaps, good guys were thrown from the horse and died in a pool of blood, the object of jousting is “touches.” Can you fend off your opponent’s lance while scoring a touch on his small shield? It’s not easy.

“Sure,” Earhart says, “we may get thrown from our horse in the process, but it is staged as part of the action.”

On a misty, cool, mid-spring morning, I found myself at a horse farm in southern Lancaster County as Earhart was working a 14-year old joust horse, Banjo, in preparation for the season. His training partner was horsewoman Beth Brown, riding her mount, Ranger. Beth is in her second decade as a jousting knight and often works with Rob’s Roundtable Productions’ team.

Paul Adams on a target run before jousting at the New Jersey Renaissance Faire.

“Good joust horses are smart,” Beth says, “and they are short coupled (shorter nose to tail than most horses) and thick — wide — in their rear quarters. Horses are herd animals and almost always run in the same direction. In jousting, your horse, carrying a rider with shield, armor, and helmet, is asked to gallop on one side of a barrier called a list directly at a charging horse, less than three feet to its side.”

It can be scary for both the horse and rider,” Hopkins explained.

Earhart and Brown take several runs, or passes, down the lists to see how their mounts are reacting early in the training season. With snorts and neighs, a small group of jousting horses grazing in the paddock move excitedly to the fence as they sense the action.

Jousting horses stand about 16 hands high, and are quick to react and fast.

“Knights wanted to ride a fast, armored jeep, not a tank,” Earhart laughs.

“And,” says partner Hopkins “jousting was most always at tournaments. Knights would have only entered combat on horse with lance for a first strike. They would have carried weapons better suited to close combat too.”

Lances explode as Paul Adams (left) and Beth Brown meet on the jousting field.

Roundtable Productions sends knights to about six Renaissance faires across the country, some weekend events and some that last for several days,

“We have to arrive early with the horses to get them accustomed to the grounds and to practice,” Hopkins explains. “It’s one thing to practice with a few people close by but at faires, there are hundreds in the audience and they are screaming.

“Jousting fields vary in length and surface, ranging from soft sand to hard packed grass,” she added. “The jousting teams always practice on short courses, as it is much more difficult to get a horse to speed and heading in right direction when the entire course is 40 yards or less.”

Knights may joust up to six times in a show and do multiple shows a day.

“It can be exhausting,” Earhart says, “for both horses and knights, especially in the heat of summer.”

The weather plays a role in how every show plays out with the safety of actors and horses in mind.

Jousting always has elements of uncertainty and risk when the knights takes to the field.

Knights, Beth Brown and Paul Adams, in hand-to-hand combat during a jousting exhibition.

“Certainly we train and know what we plan,” Earhart says, “but it never, ever goes perfectly. We need to react appropriately, give the audience the action they are looking for, and stay safe at the same time.”

Kate and Rob met at a Renaissance faire in Maine in 1990 and have been business and life partners for years. Hopkins was a horsewoman growing up and living in Central Pennsylvania, and she wanted to own her own horses. Rob didn’t say no, but he suggested they’d have to find a way for them to pay for themselves. Having worked as a knight in Renaissance faires, he envisioned jousting as the solution.

Mounting a horse with between 40 to 50 pounds of armor, wearing a 12-pound custom fit steel helmet with very little visibility in scorching summer weather may not seem like a day at the beach and it isn’t, both Hopkins and Earhart smile, “but our team enjoys making the action as realistic as possible for the audience, and our reputation is on the line every show, every day.”

Rob and Kate’s Roundtable productions has staged murder mystery dinners in and around Lititz for years and this year installed an Escape Room at Bube’s Brewery in Mount Joy. Learn more about their endeavors at www.roundtable.productions, or on their Facebook page.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.

Children at the New Jersey Renaissance Faire get up close and personal with a jousting horse.

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