With less than 50 yards between them, the two riders nudge their antsy horses into a gallop and charge. Barreling toward each other, the impact of wood upon wood suddenly cracks through the pine branches.
"Huzzah!" a spectator cheers as the blow-landing rider approaches, the splintered end of his 8-foot lance giving proof the hit was true.
One of the world's oldest sporting events, jousting is in the midst of a modern, global revival. No longer relegated as a theatrical spectacle at renaissance festivals and historical reenactments, big jousting tournaments — like the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival in Estes, Colorado, and the Tournament of the Phoenix in Southern California — attract some of the best participants from around the world, often offering hefty purses to the top riders.
Founded in 2011 by performers involved with the Northwest Renaissance Festival, an annual event in south Stevens County celebrating its 21st year this summer, the Epona Equestrian Team practices three times a week at the festival grounds. Named after the Celtic goddess of horses, Epona's 15 members have been preparing all spring to host their first competitive event, the Tournament of the Inland Empire, this weekend. In addition to jousting, the tournament hosts archery, longsword fights and equestrian skill-at-arms events. The latter involves coordination skills like spearing rings off hay bales while riding by, and other obstacles on horseback.
"We're really trying to celebrate [jousting] being a sport rather than a quintessential renaissance fair thing," says team member Corey Stubbs, the aforementioned rider who landed the splintering hit with his lance. "I'm hoping we get people out who aren't necessarily into the typical renaissance fair, but the sport of these events."
During the tournament, Stubbs — who has practiced jousting for seven years — may ride as his medieval character, Lord Powys. But because this event is more about the skills of the riders behind these alter egos, the history-inspired theatrics aren't a big focus.
"I'm looking forward to this tournament because I won't have to be a character, and you don't have to fall off [your horse] and showboat," says Alex Tull, whose medieval moniker is Dame Edith Saxby.
Tull is one of a handful of female riders on the Epona team, and of all the women she has the most jousting experience. Wearing custom-made breastplate armor and sitting atop her six-year-old mahogany mare Alera, Tull canters down the jousting yard, called the list, as Epona team captain Tieg Thornton approaches opposite. For this practice run, Thornton is lance-free, so Tull can practice hitting his wooden ecranche, a small wooden shield strapped to his left arm.
"Part of training is being a target a lot," Thornton remarks. "You have to get used to hitting, too. People have knocked themselves out of the saddle from their own force of hitting."
Adds Tull: "The first time I did it I almost pole-vaulted out of the saddle. That's the only time I've ever fallen off."
Unlike pop culture depictions of jousting in movies and television, as well as more aggressive full-contact approaches to the sport that some other modern jousters employ (as seen on National Geographic Channel's Knights of Mayhem series), Epona's riders aim to hit their opponents for points, not to do physical harm.
"When it comes to the sport on TV, it does differ from ours because they really aim to knock each other off. But that doesn't sit well with some people," Tull says.
Epona riders joust in what's called the rennen style. A rider earns one point for hitting their opponent's ecranche without breaking their lance; three points for a hit that breaks the lance, and five points if they unseat their opponent. For each joust pairing (Epona's event is co-ed), riders take five passes at each other, advancing in a bracket system.
The team's lances are made from soft and light hemlock, and are designed to break at the end on slight impact. The main section of the lance pole is reusable, and scored wooden tips capped off with hard rubber are inserted into these longer pieces.
While the jousting rules Epona adheres to don't differ widely from standards followed during the nearly four centuries when jousting was the top sport and source of entertainment across Europe, the modern event is built around safety and sportsmanship.
If a horse is even accidentally hit with a lance, the offending rider is disqualified, Tull explains, adding that the animals' welfare is always prioritized and riders will step out of competition if their horse seems nervous.
"I hope people see it as another fun sporting event to go to," she reflects. "A lot of people don't really want to go to ren fairs, and they're missing out on jousting because of that. It's gaining popularity and we want people to enjoy it as it is." ♦
Tournament of the Inland Empire • Sat, May 30 and Sun, May 31, from 8 am-8 pm • $5/person • Northwest Renaissance Festival grounds • 6493 Hwy. 291, Nine Mile Falls • facebook.com/eponateam