The Horses of Full Metal Jousting, Part 1: Safety

Learn more about the horses and the horsemen behind the show Full Metal Jousting on the History Channel.

For more of this interview, see Part 2: Horse Training and Part 3: Horsemanship.

by Karen Braschayko

When I first saw commercials for the show Full Metal Jousting, I had two questions. First, who would want to do that? How intriguing. As competitor Josh Avery said, “I don’t know what advice there is to give someone who wants to become a jouster. You either just want to get hit with a giant stick, or you don’t.” Second, great that horses would be on TV, but would they get hurt?

Full Metal Jousting showcases a full-contact professional sport, resurrecting the knightly tournaments of the medieval era, not the relatively impact-free theatrical jousts of Renaissance festivals. In each episode of the TV show, competitors charge at each other on horseback and collide at around 30 miles per hour.

Medieval jousting tournaments were often held on a field close to a castle, called the 'lists'. A barrier, also called a planke or plank, separated the combatants on the list.

Much of this medieval lingo carries over into the modern TV show and full-contact jousting tournaments. Though they changed some rules for the TV show, they stayed true to many of the medieval customs you'd have seen if you were observing a tournament, perhaps from the battlements of the castle or beside the jousting tournament field.

So out of curiosity, I tuned in with an open mind, and I was pleasantly surprised. I was touched by the concern that Shane Adams, the show’s host, showed for the jousting horses, and he knew each one very well. He encouraged the competitors to build a relationship with their mounts because they were teammates. Soon I realized that I wasn’t simply watching an extreme sport that happened to take place on horseback — I was watching a dedicated horseman share his love of horses and offer another venue to enjoy them.

Wanting to know more about hot-headed Praetorian and the other colorful mounts on the show, I contacted Shane Adams. He is a world champion competitor, vocal promoter of full-contact jousting, creator of the troupe Knights of Valour, and executive producer of Full Metal Jousting. We talked horses, and he explained how full-contact jousting is a challenging option for riders and a job that some horses love having.

Karen Braschayko for Equitrekking: How do you protect horses in this process? What kind of safety for the horses do you build into training the competitors?

Shane Adams:
Of course, in all horse-related disciplines, riding is dangerous for both horse and rider. You can take a horse out onto a rocky trail, and if there was a rain the night before, your horse could slide down and bruise his hocks or damage ligaments. Of course, as horse owners we’re trying to employ the best safety precautions we can, while at the same time still allowing them to be horses and enjoying horses ourselves.

The best and most important safety element is to have professionals jousting. You don’t take new people and put them up against each other. They need to have proper training, to show that they have control with their lances, and to show that their lances are not going to dive down and strike a horse. Ultimately, that’s the worst thing that can happen in the sport of jousting, for a horse to get hit by a competitor’s lance.

We’re protecting the horse in the same ways that knights in the days of old protected horses. There was a major rule set in place after one of the English king’s horses was struck by a competitor’s lance. The rule said that at no time a horse should ever be struck by a lance, and if it happened, then that person would be stripped of land and title. If you were a knight who had castles and thousands of acres of land in your name, then you’d no longer have the title of a knight or any of that property. It would go to the owner of horse that you struck. So it’s a big thing.

In this day and age, it hasn’t happened. I’m thankful for that, and it’s because of the extensive training that I put on my guys.

Equitrekking: Is safety why you used the wall, or joust list, on the show? What other changes or rules did you develop for the reality TV competition?

Shane Adams:
With Full Metal Jousting, these guys really were beginners. Each competitor had seven days of an intensive training boot camp. We had 30 contestants at the start, and by the end it was pretty easy to come up with the final 16. During the boot camp, the guys were drilled and trained to become safe in the lists.

We still wanted to offer that much more protection, so we used a six-foot high joust list. A list this high means that even some of my taller, 18-hand Percherons could run down that joust list, drop their heads, and be underneath that six-foot wall. The only target visible to the competitor is the person in armor. So the horses are not in any danger of getting hit. If a lance does drop down, it will punch the top of the rail, bounce up, and therefore not be in any danger of striking that oncoming horse.

The six-foot high joust list is only used when I believe that the guys jousting, such as this TV show, are not up to par with some of the professionals that I have on my team. I wanted to make sure that it was safe.

To protect the horses from splinters that may happen with the full strike of a solid wooden lance, the horses had the old mixed with the new. They have the old, like the shaffron, the horse’s traditional helmet, mixed with the new — we mounted police eye protection visors to the shaffrons in order to protect the horse’s eyes. For some of the show’s practice sessions, we used breakaway lances, which did not splinter but just broke away in sections. During these practices, the horses were not wearing any protection but were still protected by the wall.

Now, a lot of people don’t understand the technical aspects of jousting. With these 11-foot long lances, basically the horse’s head is past the point of impact before the knight even drops his lance into the target area. Because of the forward momentum of both horses traveling upwards of 20 miles an hour in each opposite way, the shrapnel and breakage of the lance goes away from the horse. It does not fly toward the horse’s face.

So for the show, did we have to have the shaffrons and eye protection? No, not really. Did we need the peytrals, the chest protection, for the horses? No, not really. But at the same time, it didn’t restrict the horse in any way. By having the crupper, the leather padding over top of the horse’s rump, this also protected it from any of the shrapnel that might come off from a broken lance.

Season one competitors of the History Channel show Full Metal Jousting

The Full Metal Jousting Season 1 competitors.

At the same time, it all really looked cool. This was the same reason why they still dressed the horses up in armor and the full-plate harness that horses used to wear, even with that rule in place that you’re not allowed to strike an opponent’s horse from the 15th century. It wasn’t really there to protect the horse. It was there because it was a big car show. When you went out to these big tournaments, historically, you wanted to dress in your fanciest armor, take your fanciest horse, and dress your horse up in his fanciest armor. It was basically a big way to show off. It’s like a car show today, and that’s what the knights did to their horses back then. For us, we wanted to protect the horses but at the same time show a modern-looking war horse.

Those are just some of the ways that we protect the horses. But first and foremost, it’s about using people who can ride down a joust and are able to hit a target no bigger than a three-inch circle every time they go down, while riding at full speed in armor. People do not have the slightest idea how hard that is.

Equitrekking: Why did you implement the rule of dropping the reins before impact?

Shane Adams:
When I first got into the sport, I saw right from the start that the guys were grabbing their reins and pulling back on the horse’s mouth while trying to keep themselves in the saddle. As historically correct as that is, the knights back then didn’t joust every single weekend like we do nowadays. So it may not have affected the horse that much back then, but it definitely affects a horse today when you’re a 250-pound man in 100 pounds of armor. That’s 350 pounds taking a full shot from a solid wooden lance, knocking you out of your seat. If you’ve got a death grip on your reins, then whatever bit you have in your horse’s mouth is coming right back onto that horse’s mouth. I’ve seen horses pulled over. I was not about to do it, by any means.

In my first competition, I dropped my reins and just allowed the horse to be the horse. He had to trust me, that I wasn’t going to have anything happen to him, and I trusted that he was going to go down the joust.

I’ve been the one behind the movement of dropping the reins. I started implementing that rule in 1997, and I had to fight for it for three years. People would tell me, “Well, I just hold on to the reins, but I’m good enough to drop the reins when I know I get hit.” I’d show those people the video afterwards of them halfway off their horse and still pulling on the horse’s mouth. I eventually won my argument, and we have saved many horses’ mouths in full-contact jousting because of that rule.

That’s a really big one for safety of the horse. At the same time, it allows him to drop his head and run in a fast, forward movement instead of having his head being pulled up, since it could be pulled up into the target area of a not-so-professional knight’s lance.

For more of this interview, see Part 2: Horse Training and Part 3: Horsemanship.

Contact Shane Adams at Catch Shane Adams in Madison, Wisconsin, for the Full Metal Jousting Armored All-Star Challenge. This competition will feature several jousters from the show at Taking the Reins, August 17-18, 2012.

Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.