HANOVER, Md. – Indiscreetly wedged between a Best Buy and a mall in suburban Maryland, Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament transports visitors to a bygone era of jousting, mead and wenches.
Elegant Andalusian horses prance as knights covered in chainmail battle to the death, or at least until the next performance.
The 1,000-person arena bursts with cheering fans both young and old, waving their knight’s flag and sporting paper crowns. And remember, there are no forks at Medieval Times.
Founded in 1973 in Spain, the dinner show has become a wildly popular event for people who appreciate a serving of kitsch with their chicken and ribs. Aside from the pageantry, the tournament also offers impressive equestrian performances from some of the country’s most regal showmen.
Andalusian horses, known for their intelligence and agility, were once strictly reserved for royalty. Commoners couldn’t purchase the breed until 80 years ago, says Amy Star, national show chair of the International Andalusian and Lusitano Horse Association. The horses have become central to Medieval Times, which breeds many of its own equines in Sanger, Texas.
At the Maryland castle, which shares a parking lot with Arundel Mills Mall, the Andalusians are the main attraction. About 20 perform each night and are stabled on the premises. Another six reside at the Crownsville, Md. ranch, where they rest in between shows and undergo extensive practice in dressage riding.
“They are a horseman’s horse,” Star says.
“Once a horseman has worked with Andalusians, rarely do they go back to other breeds.”
Watch a video of horse trainer Georgiy Gibizov below:
When the horse ballet ends, the human spectacle begins. Knights and squires take to the arena, each settling into roles befitting their rank.
Like the Andalusians, the knights have completed weeks of training at what one cast member referred to as “knight bootcamp.” Typically held at the same Texas ranch where the horses are bred, would-be knights learn how to wield swords and axes, work with horses and perform stunts.
The qualifications to serve in the king’s guard?
“We look for people who are athletic, people who have done team sports before,” says assistant head knight Matt Sheils. “Working the way we do, it’s a very team- oriented environment. You can’t swing swords at people you don’t trust.”
But head knight Sam Talley, who joined the Maryland castle just before it opened in 2003, looks for the type of qualities that an actual knight would have possessed centuries ago.
“Gentleman is the key word,” he says. “The wheels and cogs function much like they would in a professional sports team, so those guys that have a good attitude and strong work ethic.”
And don’t forget the desire to perform in front of thousands of people.
“Yes, you do need a little bit of an ego,” he says.
Meet more of the cast by clicking through the photo gallery above and to the right.