Medieval Meets Modern In World Of California Jousting
Up a long dirt road, much like the other hundreds of dusty roads in the Los Padres National Forest, you will find a ranch—just not the typical kind.
The uneven terrain, peppered with rocks and divided by a small, semi-frozen stream, leads to the American Jousting Alliance. It is a place where the old world meets the new.
The Alliance, as members call it, is a school of medieval jousting and games. Brave souls from all over the southland and beyond come for weekend training sessions in the most recognized sport of the middle ages.
“What we are doing here is trying to keep the style of medieval jousting alive,” owner of the AJA, James Zoppe said.
Jousting involves two knights, mounted on horses, charging towards each other with lances and shields. The goal is to make contact between the opposing lances and shields, called a “double hit.” Students sign up for daylong classes in not only traditional jousting but also spear throwing and ring jousting.
Each student is assigned a horse and starts the day by brushing and grooming it. Then it’s off to practice with the reins and wooden lances.
“I had never even ridden a horse before,” first-timer Mike Sarti said. “I was a little nervous at first.”
But, there is no handholding at the AJA. After quick instructional sessions, students soon find themselves riding the horses while balancing 10-foot lances or razor-sharp spears. They take turns riding through the course at a gallop, aiming for one of three jousting rings or a makeshift target, made of a metal circle acting as the bull’s-eye, affixed to a hay bale.
“In California, you don’t really find a lot of places where you get to do things like they used to do,” second-time jouster Adam Treat said, “and it’s a lot more fun because it’s real. There is no ball pit or foam. We’re not doing tricks.”
What they are doing instead is practicing an age-old activity that has recently gained television-fueled fame. Shows like the History Channel’s “Full Metal Jousting” and National Geographic Channel’s “Knights of Mayhem” have reintroduced the public to jousting. The shows profile competitive jousters in their day-to-day activities and sometimes hostile encounters with each other.
“I first found this place [the American Jousting Alliance] because I looked it up after seeing one of the shows,” Sarti said. “I was interested but then I started to see the injuries on the show and I started freaking out and was like, ‘oh man, guys are getting knocked off,’ and the ambulance had to come on a few episodes. That psyched me out a little bit, so when I got here I was a little unsure.”
You won’t find anyone getting knocked off horses at the AJA. Although they teach students to make direct hits to the center of their opponent’s shields, resulting in a loud thud, they do not condone “unhorsing” opponents.
“With all the unsavory behavior on the reality shows and other places, this actually shows that this sport and this time period was the start of good sportsmanship and chivalry between warriors,” Zoppe said of his facility. “That’s what we have here and it’s a great feeling.”
Even though the male dominated sport is less violent and dangerous than it used to be, you still won’t see many women warriors suiting up for the joust, rather they are saddling up for the games.
“What’s great about this is it’s something that people have been doing for hundreds of years so there is romanticism, a mysticism about it,” Joanne Ferguson, Zoppe’s girlfriend said, “and to get on these big huge war horses and do it for yourself is just great.”
It seems to be the mix of the danger and excitement that is attracting different types people to the Fraizer Park, Calif. facility for a day of jousting but a type seems to emerge.
Well, you might think it would be a burley, rough and tumble person, but a lot of them are soft spoken,” Zoppe said. “You know, speak softly and carry a big stick.”