SHERIDAN — T.J. Duquette, 45, sits atop a 2,000-pound warhorse, wearing $20,000 worth of plated steel armor that adds another 165 pounds to his overall weight. An 11-foot-long Douglas fir lance that is an inch and a quarter around is couched tightly against the side of his chest.
Nicknamed “The Mountain,” he looks a bit like his namesake as the hot afternoon sun casts his imposing figure in a shady silhouette on the ground. Duquette is a member of the Knights of Valor, a traveling troupe of modern-day knights that authentically re-create medieval jousting and other traditions of the era.
The Knights recently took the field in Sheridan and rode to the aid of CHAPS, a nonprofit that aids a wide range of people through equine-assisted learning and therapy.
In a Tournament of Knights arranged by the charity, the Knights demonstrated the medieval sport of jousting to help raise funds for the nonprofit.
The Knights were fresh off a previous appearance at the Teton County Fair in Jackson Hole, which was a sold-out show.
Not For Sissies
Duquette has dislocated his shoulder at least 26 times. In fact, he’s not even sure exactly how many times the shoulder has been dislocated, because he stopped counting at 26.
He’s had surgery to fix the shoulder. He’s had a concussion. He’s broken his upper leg. He’s broken ribs. And he has broken both collarbones.
But Duquette betrays no hint of nerves as he sits atop his war horse, readying to charge his opponent — who is just as practiced as he is at hitting, square-on, the metal grandguards that are bolted to each knight’s armor over their left shoulders.
Hitting the grandguard, even with a glancing blow, is good for a single point in the tournament. Hitting the grandguard and breaking the lance is good for five points. Unseating the rider from his horse is the grand slam. It’s worth 10 points.
“We are absolutely trying to knock each other off,” Duquette said. “But it doesn’t happen every match. That’s one way you know this is not choreographed.”
When They Meet
When the Knights of Valor Captain Shane Adams calls for the knights to come about and charge, Duquette urges his horse forward at full speed — as does his opponent.
Eight seconds later there’s a large crack that splits the air. That sound is the lances striking the metal grandguards and shattering with a full 5,000 pounds of force. That force is powered by the determination of two men and two horses riding full tilt at each other, as fast as their horses will carry them. Every muscle is bent on pushing the other rider out of his seat.
The crowd whoops and hollers as broken pieces of each lance spiral off to either side, an uncontrolled shower of wood chunks and splinters. The horses and their riders have already passed safely by, and are coming around, each at the opposite end of the charging field from where they started.
If Duquette is smiling, no one can see it behind the metal helmet he wears. His vision is limited by metal slits that have dramatically narrowed his world. In this moment, there is only this tournament, and the rider he’s determined to unseat — if he can.
Duquette brings his horse around to take another lance. And, just like that, he’s ready to charge again.
No Pretending Here
Lots of people like to play at being knights, Duquette told Cowboy State Daily after the match.
The Knights of Valor, however, aren’t tapping each other with duct tape-wrapped swords. There’s no pretending here, nor any pretension. Words are backed by deeds. That’s one of the reasons why Duquette has chosen to be part of this particular group.
The steel armor that Duquette wears on his upper body was custom-made by a blacksmith, as was the scale-mail skirting he wears around his waist. It’s up to the challenge of taking a real blow from a real lance.
Standard steel leg armor wasn’t working for Duquette, though, so he crafted his own solution to protect his legs.
“My legs are so big, (leg armor) basically just curls in and pinches me against the saddle,” he said.
He actually got a better idea to protect his legs while watching the “Lord of The Rings.”
“The Riders of Rohan all wore a scale skirt on the lower body,” he said. “It’s actually a great idea and usage, because it still gives me the same protection, but then there’s nothing between me and the horse, so I can feel the horse. I can have that connection much more.”
Duquette’s “Riders of Rohan” skirt is made of two layers of leather. The top layer are leather scales that have been attached to a bottom layer of leather with small metal rivets. The leather is the only thing providing any true protection. The metal rivets are inconsequential from a protection standpoint and serve only as fasteners.
“Every (leather) scale has been cut out individually,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “And then I riveted them to upholstery-weight leather backing, to give me a little extra protection.”
Duquette is working on another skirt to replace the one he’s been wearing.
“After 15 years, (this one) is being held together with duct tape and zip ties,” he said. “So, I need a new set that is actually brand new. But this one still looks pretty good for being that old.”
It’s Not Balsa Wood, Folks
The lances used by Knights of Valor are the real deal, Knights of Valor Captain Shane Adams told Cowboy State Daily.
While some jousting troupes claim to be authentic, Adams said most of them are using balsa wood lances. These break quite easily, and aren’t likely to ever throw a competitor off his horse. Using balsa wood actually eliminates part of the key skills that the very best knights of old were trying to accomplish during a jousting tournament — using their lance to unseat a rider.
“I was able to design our lances in such a way that it saves your hands while still giving the impact force needed not just to appease the crowd that’s here to see full-contact jousting, but to be able to land a television show,” Adams said.
The television show Adams referred to was called Full Metal Jousting. It aired for a season on the History Channel in 2012. Trainees squared off against each other for a $100,000 purse.
Adams has designed the Knights of Valor’s jousting style after historical methods, keeping as much authenticity as possible, while improving on the safety aspects a little.
That includes training his knights what to do when — not if — they’re knocked off their horse.
“If you’ve retained consciousness and you’re still there, they know to keep their arms in and don’t stretch their arms out,” Adams said.
Stretching one’s arms out to break a fall is how arms get broken.
“Let the armor do the job,” Adams said. “Breathe normally, and don’t hold your breath.”
But knowing what to do and doing it are two different things, Adams added, and instinct takes over sometimes.
“Everybody here has had some sort of injury, but none severe enough to make them want to stop,” Adams said. “I myself in the sport have really only ever broken my hand, you know, and a couple of ribs.”
Jousting Used To Be Like The Olympics
Jousting in medieval times was soon outstripped by cannon balls and gunpowder, which meant it was soon no longer useful on the field of battle.
That left an awful lot of knights needing something to do, and that’s part of what Duquette believes was behind the popularity jousting once had.
“You had maybe a couple of knights who were generals, but the rest needed something to do,” he said. “So, they became athletes. The joust became like the Super Bowl of the medieval age. It was to show their skill with weapons, even though they weren’t going to be used any more but to entertain the crowds.”
Duquette learned about knights in Canada when he was in the fourth grade. Canada at that time had a mandatory medieval history section. The Hamilton, Ontario resident kept studying medieval history long after the mandatory section was over, though, and even joined re-enactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronisms as an adult. The group researches and recreates 17th century skills and arts, as well as culture and history.
“They were great people and a great time,” he said. “It was good, it was fun. But it wasn’t what I really wanted. I wasn’t being a knight.”
He met Adams after working with Medieval Times for seven years. The company offers a medieval dinner and tournament for paying customers to enjoy. He worked at the one in Toronto.
“I was kind of there (with that),” he said.
But, as both Duquette and Adams put it, working for this company meant they were really just knights in “shining tinsel and polyester.”
It was Adams who convinced Duquette to try full-contact jousting.
Once was all it took. Duquette knew the first time through that he’d found what he was looking for.
“I got addicted,” Adams said. “I was like this is awesome, I’m going to be doing this.”
Knighthood In The Modern Age
The knights of old didn’t wait for kings to knight them, Duquette told Cowboy State Daily.
“That happened later when royalty realized they needed to take control of it because of all of these ambitious highly trained fighters,” he said. “They were like yeah, we need to be the ones in charge of who gets to be it.”
In that sense, Duquette feels that he is like those original knights of old, seizing for himself a title no modern-day king can give him. But he does hearken to the concepts of chivalry and honor that arose later in the history of knighthood, during the Renaissance.
“I suppose (being a knight) means, it’s different to different people, but to me, it’s that ideal of honor, the real ideals of knight’s chivalry, and things like that,” he said. “Especially, myself, being the biggest guy, being that big guy, that person capable of doing physical harm to someone, but not, but only using that in the sense of protection or good.”
Now that COVID is over, Duquette said he’s hoping the group can rebuild back to what it was before the pandemic, when they were doing jousting tournaments all across North America.
“This is an amazing sport and it’s something that could be so much bigger,” he said.
Keeping the sport alive, Duquette believes, helps keep alive something the modern age needs. That something is not just old-fashioned values like chivalry and honor, though.
It’s about dreams, too.
“I want to be a knight,” he said. “If you give up on that thing that is your dream, all of a sudden, the rest of your life can go down that hill too. So, it’s about keeping dreams alive.”
That’s something Adams has stressed to all of his Knights of Valor, Duquette added.
“That’s his dream, too, and I share that,” Duquette said. “It’s like, always keep your dreams alive. Always try for them because you never know. And if you keep trying for them, then, you know what, trying for them will help all the rest of the parts of your life. It’s the struggle to get your dream that drives everyone.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.