The faint smell of hot dogs and hamburgers hovered lazily above the small crowd gathered on the grassy field behind the headquarters of the Petersville Farmers Club Sunday afternoon.
If not for the snuffling sounds of horses sighing or the 80-yard dirt track that ran before them, segmented by three wooden arches, it would feel like any old family reunion. Laughter bubbled up from clusters of cloth folding chairs as people caught up on who had retired, gotten engaged or had a baby. Everyone seemed to know each other.
But at that moment, 25-year-old Bradley Enfield charged past on a deep brown steed, eyes focused intensely on the small white hoops that hung from each archway. Holding a thin rod right below his chin, he balanced inches above his saddle, legs locked around his horse’s sides. For nine seconds, he did not move an inch until — one, two, three — he speared each hoop, one after the other.
Standing just outside the rope that surrounded the track, Ron Vogel — president of the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association — watched Enfield, a national ring jousting champion, breeze past him. He grinned and straightened his straw cowboy hat.
“Smooth, ain’t he?” he remarked.
As of Sunday, the Petersville Farmers Club has been hosting its annual ring jousting tournament for a century. It hasn’t missed a single year since 1921 — not even last July, when Frederick County’s coronavirus seven-day positivity rate hovered around 3 percent. In the time since the tournament began, jousting became Maryland’s official state sport in 1962.
In the sport of ring jousting, competitors trot, canter or lope through three archways, attempting to spear the small metal rings that hang underneath them. For beginners, the rings are 1 and 3/4 inch in diameter, but they can be as narrow as 1/4-inch — a little smaller than a lifesaver. Each athlete gets three tries on the track; more experienced riders must complete the course in less than nine seconds.
During the early years of the farmers club’s competition, most of the jousters were local farmers who were taking time off from tending to their fields or cattle. Farmers and dairymen are still on the tournament’s roster 100 years later, but now they’re joined by teachers, paramedics and an orthopedic physician. On Sunday, a dental hygienist — Vicki Betts — sat behind a table, carefully marking a scorecard and clutching a microphone.
“The rings are hung, the track is clear,” she called out as each athlete and their hooved partner prepared for turn to raise plumes of dust over the spectators. “Charge, fair maid!”
Unlike many of the afternoon’s competitors, who started jousting before they even entered Kindergarten, Betts was 35 when she fell in love with the sport. After years of competing as the “Maid of Northwind” — named for her farm in Carroll County, where she has five horses — she became president of the state’s jousting tournament association.
Although she has since passed that title to Vogel, she is still deeply involved with the organization and the sport. It’s wonderful, she said. Anyone can compete, no matter their age or breed of their horse. It teaches kids the value of sportsmanship, too, she added, smiling at her grandson, who sat beside her.
“I’ll tell you,” she said. “When you have your own child riding your horse in the same class as you, there are times you want to let them ride in the trailer on the way home because they beat you.”
Sunday’s competition got off to a frightening start when a horse broke into an unexpected gallop down the track, a terrified Jase McDaniel bouncing on her saddle. The 3-year-old tumbled to the ground, sobbing, after Vogel stepped in front of the runaway steed, slowing her down.
Not even an hour later, though, McDaniel’s chubby cheeks stretched out in a sunny smile as he perched on the horse’s back once more, his mom leading both of them down the dirt trail. He poked at each of the hoops with his lance as they walked under the arches.
“Mommy’s heart is still not OK,” Kristen McDaniel later said, laughing nervously. “He’s never even gone faster than a slow trot before, so for him to gallop down the track like that?” She shook her head.
Though Sunday marked Jase’s first big fall, he’s already been jousting for a year. Last summer, he became the national champion of the leadline division at just the age of 2. His mom picked up her own title as national champion of the novice division.
Marley Enfield, now a 23-year-old special education teacher at Carroll Manor Elementary School, also started jousting at just 2. Her brother, Bradley, had just started (he was then 5) and she wasn’t about to be left out of the fun. Her grandma, Shirley Enfield, laughed with delight as she remembered how stubborn her granddaughter was back then.
“’Mommy, I don’t need you to hold my leg,’” Enfield remembered Marley proclaiming. “’I’m not going to fall off!’”
But Marley had plenty of veteran jousters to mentor her. The sport runs in her blood; her grandfather (Shirley Enfield’s late husband, Leon), started jousting in 1947 at 14 years old. Shirley used to watch him compete on the same track she sat in front of on Sunday. They married in 1957, but she had her eye on him back when they were both teenagers, she said, smiling at the memory.
Decades later, her son, Bob Enfield, charged past her on the track his dad used to ride down. Body tense with concentration, only Enfield’s mustache twitched as he muttered instructions to his horse.
As soon as he hopped off the saddle , though, Enfield’s disposition couldn’t have been more different. His eyes sparkled as he remembered his early years as a jouster, back before his family sold their dairy farm.
“Mom packed a lunch and that’s what we did” he said, beaming. “We went to the joust tournament and then we went home and milked cows again when we got done.”
But besides family tradition and the thrill of the sport, there’s something else that keeps everyone coming back, year after year, to the patch of land behind the farmers club — each other.
Sure, they squabble, Betts said as a horse with a milky blue eye cantered past her table. But when one of them needed help, everyone stepped up.
“All of us are one big family,” she said. “We really are. We’re our own community.”