by David Kaemmerer, Worden, Ill.
photos by Shawn Carlson
DAVE and Buttons lance breaking in the joust
Jeff Johnson and I had been training my mules Buttons and Milly two to three times a week for months to get ready for the joust in Texas. This “Lysts on the Lake Joust” brings together some of the best jousters in the world, and we were both honored to be invited this year. I took second in this joust last year, losing by one point to a veteran jouster and mentor. This was Jeff’s first invitation to this prestigious joust, and we both trained hard and came to show these horse folks that mules rule.
When my wife, Jeff, and I loaded the mules and left on the 15 hour trip, I thought I was suffering from allergies. As we travelled across the country from St. Louis, Mo., to Austin, Texas, I realized what I actually had was the flu. To make matters worse, we drove through a bad storm for most of our all night drive, adding to my stress.
When we arrived, we first made sure the mules were settled and cared for, and then began unloading our armor from the truck bed. I had been up for 36 hours at this point and I was tired. As I attempted to lift my armor box over the truck wall, it slipped, and the weight and weird angle bent my right wrist back, giving me a decent wrist sprain. I found our cabin, crashed, and tried to sleep it off.
The competitions didn’t start until the following day, so the next morning we let our mules rest and get used to the site. That afternoon, Jeff and I decided to stretch the mules out and show them the site and ride a little in the tilt lane with no armor. We were working on tacking up when I stepped down out of the back of the trailer and right into a grass covered hole, bending my ankle sideways and throwing me to the ground. I was told I shouted, “YOU GOT TO BE FRICKIN KIDDING ME!” (only I didn’t use “frickin”). My first thought as all that pain shot through my ankle was, “You just broke your ankle, dummy, and have to joust tomorrow!” As I laid there, people ran over to help me up. After they made fun of me for not shouting “ouch,” we determined it was a very bad sprain but not anything broken. After about 20 minutes I realized if I didn’t roll my ankle side to side, I could hobble along. Once I climbed in the saddle, my boots and my stirrup kept my ankle from rolling. I could ride, but it was painful. As I rode Buttons around, I was thinking “First the flu, then a light sprained wrist, and now a bad sprained ankle. I am in trouble tomorrow - if I can even joust at all.” Riding while sick and injured in 80 pounds of armor in 90 degree heat was not much to look forward to. Jeff said that he felt sorry for me, but he also jokingly commented that he and Milly wouldn’t get anywhere near me. Not only was I a flu carrier, I was obviously cursed and they didn’t want my bad luck to rub off on them.
I had one thing going for me, and that was that Buttons and I had trained a lot. I think my mule took pity on me because she was riding great. Everyone went to dinner that night and I ended up leaving early due to cold shivers. I went to bed early and hoped for better luck in day one of the three days of upcoming competition.
The next morning I woke early and realized the flu was full on. I put my tall, tight boots on after taking a bunch of medicine and drinking Gatorade. The boots gave my aching ankle better support and I could walk and ride easier, as long as I didn’t roll my ankle. My wrist was hurting but not enough to keep me from holding a lance. Day one was all jousting, with three sessions of five jousters each. We would joust three passes with the four others in your session for 12 passes. The five lowest scores of the day from all 15 jousters would be eliminated in day one and only 10 jousters would move to day two.
I don’t recall much of day one. I was so sick, feverish and sore. I told myself to just go joust and whatever happens is meant to be. I think that thought relaxed me and gave me an “I don’t care anymore” attitude and I didn’t stress. Buttons ran perfect making my job much easier. I knew I had done pretty well, but had no idea what my score was. At the end of the day they tallied the scores and I was amazed when they announced I was tied for first place with another jouster, and Jeff was in second place by only a couple points. Jeff and I and our mules made it through the first round of eliminations. While many of the folks went off and celebrated, I cared for my mule, had more medicine and Gatorade, and went to bed early again.
DAVE and Buttons jousting
Day two was a games course called The Hunt and two more sessions of jousting. The five jousters with highest scores would progress to the finals the next day. I awoke feeling a little better, so I took less medicine and forced more liquids. The Hunt is like a cross-county course with jumps, ditches and obstacles, combined with targets to hit with sword, spear and bow. Jeff and I have done lots of this skill at arms games over the years with our mules, and we both did well in The Hunt. When we started to armor up to joust in the afternoon the temperature had risen and the humidity climbed, making it like a sauna.
JEFF JOHNSON and Milly in the hunt
DAVE and Buttons in the hunt
My good friend and sports photographer Shawn Carlson arrived with his wife to watch us joust. Shawn is a former St. Louis resident who now lives in Houston. My wife’s brother, sister-in-law, and their young children arrived from nearby in Texas, as well. This was the first time these friends and family would all see me joust, so there was no pressure for this sick mule rider.
JEFF, SHAWN and DAVE
I was feeling better, but not a 100 percent. As I finished armoring for my session, Jeff and Milly jousted in the session before mine. They kicked ass (pun intended). Milly was showing us that all that practice had paid off. Jeff was jousting well and on target. Numerous veteran jousters and judges commented on how far those two had come and how well they were doing. I was very proud of my mule and my buddy Jeff. They were making a great team and their efforts showed.
My session went pretty well. We got to the field early and I spoke to my niece and nephew and other kids in the crowd. This chatting before hand tends to relax Buttons and I. I was no longer feeling like total death and, though the humidity was bad and I was still a little feverish, my mule took pity on me again and ran well. I can’t stress enough how much of a difference that makes. All of what we do happens in a few seconds and the mule running well makes my job worlds easier. I can just focus on my seat, my lance control and targeting. She ran perfectly and that made jousting, even when sick, easier than it should have been.
We were on our final passes of that session with my final opponent, when we hit each other at the same time, and both our lances stuck on each others shields. The hit was one of the hardest I have ever taken. My head whiplashed forward as my shield whiplashed back from the force. The two came together with what felt like an uppercut to my chin. I was then rocked backwards like a giant hand had slowly shoved me continuously back. I “almost” caught myself with my legs, but my cinch had loosen and my saddle slipped sideways leaving me hanging horizontal to my mule. My mule stopped running after the hit at end of the lane (as she was trained to do) and I assume she felt me hanging sideways. I knew I couldn’t go back up from this far down and would only continue to slide. I quickly looked down to make sure I wasn’t going to land on a post and decided with the saddle half way down to her belly I might as well let go. The ground was only a few feet away at this point, so I dropped. The crash a man in armor makes hitting the ground is pretty loud and brutal. My armor fits and protects me and it was a controlled fall. I knew the crowd, judges and staff would be alarmed that I was badly hurt, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t. So the moment after I hit the ground, I rolled to my feet, jumped in the air, waived my arms, and yelled “Tadaaaaaa!” This brought cheers from the crowd. I was still swarmed with people wanting to make sure I wasn’t hurt or concussed. As they tried to figure out if I was OK, my friends led Buttons off to check her and reset her saddle. They asked me questions to ensure I was “all there,” but all I was worried about was finding out my score from my pass. I had broken the lance all the way for a full four points. They laughed at me and said I must be fine. I assured them I was, and after taking a minute to calm Buttons, check my saddle and assure my mule it wasn’t her fault, I climbed back on to finish what was the last passes of that days last session.
Luckily for me, two things happened during that freak hit. One: my niece and nephew got fussy right before hand and their parents, along with my wife, had went to the parking lot to say good bye. They missed their uncle being unhorsed (well, really un-muled, or knocked off, or whatever…they missed my fall from grace). Two: Shawn stopped shooting photos when he saw I was coming off, much to the disappointment of my jouster buddies who wanted to relive and re-share those not so precious moments. (Thanks, Shawn, I owe you one, or probably more than one).
Late that night they announced which five of the original 15 jousters would progress to the finals on the third day. Again, I was happy to see the list included Jeff and Milly. Their first Lysts and they were in the finals! The list also included Buttons and I. We had made it, and two mules would be in the finals against three horses and their riders. I would be competing against my buddy, and I told him good luck, and that as long as one of us mule riders win, it’s good.
The day of the finals, I awoke feeling pretty good. I mean, comparatively, that is. After feeling like I was dying and then feeling like the death warmed over, feeling just “OK” was a great feeling. I put my armor on was full of energy and felt like I could lift draft mules with one hand.
The morning activity was a Mounted Combat, a battle in armor with Batons. Batons are kind of like lightly padded baseball bats. This event, like the skill at arms games, would not add to your joust score but would add to your total score for grand champion. The order you were eliminated equaled your points. Eleven armored riders were competing. If you were eliminated first, you received one point. If eliminated second, you received two points. If eliminated last, you received 11 points. So, score wise, you wanted to be one of the last on the field. A total of five hard blows to your armor from your foes would eliminate you. I felt great and Buttons flew into this combat. This combat is much like old WWI Bi-planes dog fighting. You never want to stop and you want to out-ride your opponents by circling or spinning in place and getting behind them. It’s about fighting, but it’s much more about riding skill and maneuvering. You can only turn so far around in the saddle to defend yourself, so getting behind your opponent is a big deal. Also, this was every man or woman for their self, no allies. If you stopped fighting one person, you had to worry about another foe coming up on your own flank. Mules are great at this kind of fight, as they typically turn much faster than most horses, and Buttons can turn on a dime and give you some change. We chased down opponents, spun in place and charged others and shot off at a run when I suspected I was being flanked, only to circle back in on our pursuers. Generally I was having a great time as I was finally feeling good. Buttons and I were the fourth from last to be eliminated. I was feeling good and ready for the joust finals that afternoon.
DAVE and Buttons in hot pursuit
When the finals began Jeff and Milly were breaking some lances for max points and running smooth as a team. I was feeling good and Buttons was riding nice and looking in great shape, not looking tired and maintaining gate nicely. All the conditioning and practice had both mules still strong on day three. I was not sick and my ankle and wrist pains were drowned by the adrenaline. So I felt jazzed to be jousting and everything seemed brighter after days of sick, stress and being miserable. Even the weather was cooler that day, with a nice cool wind.
Everyone in the finals was getting some good breaks, so it could be anyone’s win that day, but I felt it was a mule’s time to win this. Jeff was going to have to work for it to beat me today. Finally it came time for Jeff and Milly to ride against Buttons and I. As I approached the lane, just before I took off, I yelled “Mule Power!” at the crowd and slammed the visor on my helmet closed, as we both grabbed lances and charged our mules at each other. We came together with a crash, almost as hard as the hit the day before that had unseated me. I felt myself rock back and thought, “Oh no you don’t!” and righted myself into my seat. I was not about to be unseated again and not by my friend riding my other mule! We both roared with laughter after this titanic hit. We rode by to clasp hands as best friends enjoying this moment we had trained so hard to get to, and took our places to charge each other again for pass two of three.
By now both Milly and Buttons had a huge following among the kids. We each spent a fair amount of time before and after each session with the kids and had told them if they cheered for the mules (not us) the mules would hear their names and run harder. Even through our helms we could hear them all alternating shouting “MILLY!!! MILLY!” and “GO BUTTONS GO!!”. Milly the draft mule thundered down the lane at Buttons. Buttons the Thoroughbred mule raced down the lane to meet her. Jeff and I struck each other another solid set of hits. I could see all the passes we had made in practice in these runs. Outside the tilt lane, as we passed each other to return to our ends of the lane for the final pass of three, we paused to shake hands again. I lifted my visor and said, “Hey, Jeff! You’re in the finals of Lysts on the Lake!”
He grinned and replied, “Hey, Dave! So are you!”
“One more pass?” I asked.
“Yes, sir!” he shouted back.
We returned to our ends and raced at each other to strike each other boldly one more time that day. Both of us spent some time praising our mules, showering them with treats and thanking our very loud pint sized cheering sections of kids.
The scores would be announced shortly after. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I had run pretty well that day, and my mule had done far better than me. But I knew Jeff and Milly had done well, and so had a few others. It was a happy surprise when they announced Buttons and I had won first place in the joust! Jeff and Milly had taken fourth place, a noble showing for the pair in their first Texas joust. They then again honored Buttons and I when they announced we had won the Grand Champion of the tourney, meaning highest points total for all events at Lysts. They gave me a beautiful silver ring for the joust prize and a very awesome silver pin for the Grand Champion.
We had many of the Joust staff and judges come to us after the event and tell us how nice it was to have two mules that were trained, safe, well behaved and knew their job (while some of the horses were acting crazy).
A big thanks to my awesome wife Kris for tolerating my joust craziness and obsessiveness, and big thanks to all the Texas Joust staff, the ground crew and those who squired for Jeff and I. We can’t do all that without your help.
Two mules went to the Texas joust and made it to the finals. One mule won the championship and joust. Chock up another set of wins for the mules of the world. Soon there will be a third mule jousting with us as our mule Rose continues to train. Hear that jousters? A mule storm coming at you soon!
Dave has started a gofundme account to help build an outdoor arena to hold free medieval practices for the mules and his students. See more at gofundme.com/outdoor-equestrain-arena-fund