GW: I’m here today with Sarah Hay, who has been jousting since 2008, moved from Australia to Oman in 2016 to be closer to the jousting circuit. And in 2018 won the Queen’s Jubilee Horn at the Royal Armouries’ Easter jousting tournament in Leeds. So without further ado, Sarah, welcome to the show.
SH: Thank you very much.
GW: So whereabouts in the world are you now?
SH: So right now, I live in Jeddah, which is by the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.
GW: What took you there?
SH: I’m here for work, so I’m in education, so I work in a school here. It’s convenient to be here in Saudi Arabia while COVID has been raging because it’s been a nice place to be and comfortable and it seemed really safe while the pandemic was happening. So yeah, I’m here, much closer to Europe than Australia, and well-positioned to head north when the opportunity arises.
GW: Fantastic. So, OK, the numbers I just read out to everyone seem kind of crazy like you started jousting 2008 and I know you won an international competition two years later. How on earth did you get that good at jousting that quickly?
SH: OK. I was lucky in that when I saw jousting for the first time, I already had a long history of successful equestrian sports. I’d been riding for a very long time and I’d been competing since a five year old in a range of different equestrian sports. So when I came to jousting, I had some skills in place. What I didn’t have was sort of the opposite to how a lot of other people come to jousting. A lot of other people come to jousting when they’ve had a lot of weapons experience. Maybe they’ve come through the SCA and they’ve learnt to ride and they’ve applied their weaponry skills on horseback. I brought all the horse skills first, many, many years of horse skills first and then learnt the weapons skills second. So it was the opposite experience for me. So it was interesting. You know, when I started, one of my besties said it’s as if everything I’d ever done had led me to this moment of jousting, which became my passion. Just as soon as I saw it, I thought, wow, this is something that I have to do. So I guess improving for me relatively quickly was because of the combination of skills that I had already had before. But, you know, when I saw it and decided, this is it, I have to do this. I was totally committed. I had to travel 250 kilometres one way just to get three hits. So when I found a trainer, I had to pack up my horse, get it in the horse float, drive for a number of hours, and I only used to get three hits because balsa is actually very expensive. Balsa is what the tips are generally made of. And I’ve heard that that’s actually an endangered wood. Being endangered, we wouldn’t use it at all, but there’s not so much of it anyway in the world, it’s very expensive. And so we couldn’t actually afford to break a lot of balsa. So when I actually started, I was terrible. And part of that was psychological, because when you get on a horse with a weapon and you have to hit another person, that’s a striking experience. Excuse the pun. I had never hit anyone before. I’d only hit balls with baseball bats, you know, balls with cricket bats. But when it comes to actually striking a person in the chest, I mean, normally that would be an act of violence, in order to really hurt someone. And I wasn’t interested in that. So I really had to get my head straight at the start to think that, well, this is the game, this is the sport, and if I’m not prepared to hit this person, then I need to stop and not play this game at all. So I’m the one who controls my thoughts, so I got over that pretty quickly. And then I was just very, very determined, you know, as much practice as I could get, which wasn’t much. I took that opportunity and very quickly had the opportunity to ride at a medieval festival in Sydney one weekend. And I just had an absolute ball. I got a couple of hits. I still wasn’t that good, but I was just in love with the sport. And three days after I rode in my first medieval jousting show, I drove a thousand kilometres north to a tournament in Brisbane. At that point, I didn’t even know what a tournament was, but I just knew I had to do it. threw my horse on the back of the float and I sang all the way. It was a two day trip. I had to stop and stay at a showground overnight with my horse in the stable, and I was sleeping in the horse float, I think. Oh, I sang all the way. I was just in love with this idea of jousting and oh my god, it was just the most wonderful experience. So I was totally passionately involved. Everything I did was about to get as much practise as I could, to get as good as I could. And then, by the time 2010 came around and I went to Europe for the first time, I was petrified. I was absolutely petrified on that first trip to Europe because I had no idea how I was going to go. The whole point was that I wanted to see, how did I match up to the people who were doing it where it was really done? And so I had no concept of how my skills would match everyone over there. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know a soul. All I had was the contact of my trainer and Fred Perot, who was running this tournament in Belgium. And yeah, I’m generally a shy person, so it was a big deal just for me to be there and meet everybody, that was a big deal in itself. And I was petrified that I would do badly and that would be the end. So for me to be a successful jouster, I’m very focussed mentally on the task and I visualise myself being successful. And so even though I was petrified at that first tournament, I intended to win. I had no idea whether I would or not, but I intended to. And you know what? I did win that tournament. It was amazing, such a wonderful, amazing moment. I only found out years later that at that tournament, I beat the European champion at that time. I didn’t even know. I didn’t even know, I was just there having a fun time and having a go. And it was a brilliant experience, great experience, and it just went on from there.
GW: Well, I’ve been making notes while we were talking, and that were three or four things I need to circle back on. OK. The first is I’ve been teaching people to fight with swords for a really long time. 20 odd years now and so many of my students have a culturally induced hang up about hitting people. And so when you said initially you had difficulty with the idea of like actually just hitting somebody with a lance, that’s true for maybe two thirds of the people I’ve ever trained, getting them over that hump. And some people, they never get over that hump. And they basically they just don’t like hitting people to the point that they end up basically just doing sword forms and cooperative drills and they just don’t ever want to fence. So you’re not alone.
SH: Aha. OK. Yeah, that’s interesting. Well, the way I viewed it is that we are each responsible to present ourselves as a safe target. That means wearing proper armour so that you can be hit anywhere. And you know, it’s my responsibility to be to be safe. And actually, I was training with someone one day, a woman here in Australia, and I hit her in the right place. I hit her in the shield and my lance went up, which it should, and it ticked her under the chin. Now she was wearing an Aventail that wasn’t properly lined. And so I finished that pass and they told me what happened. And I said, well, that’s it. I can never joust you again until you have equipment where I can hit you in the shield and the lance can go up, which it should, and it can never hurt you. Otherwise, you could kill someone.
GW: And you wear armour so that other people can hit you. It’s like when I put my gear on for sparring, if I’m not wearing gauntlets, my student or whoever I’m fencing with can’t go for my hands. Yeah. So we put the gear on so that you can get hit and I guess, yeah, if you’re using lances that will break and they’re supposed to break on horseback. You absolutely can’t be expected to do that kind of delicate force control that we do with swords.
SH: Yeah, I mean, we’re going really fast. We’re moving towards a moving target on a moving animal. An animal has emotions who’s really in the moment, you know, this animal you’re on, this is what I love about it to me. Riding a horse is as close as you can get to riding a dragon.
GW: Very true.
SH: And you think, wow, here I am a knight on a dragon and I’m facing off against another knight on a dragon, how cool is this? I mean, horses have feelings and emotions, and they are an equal partner in this. So it’s not just hitting a target, it’s much, much more than that and being safe in that moment. And yeah, being confident that the other rider can hit you anywhere and you’ll be OK.
GW: All right, now, we are going to get into what it’s like to get, like, seriously whacked while jousting in a minute, but let me just dial back a little bit. So you saw this jousting down for the first time and you thought, oh my God, I’ve got to do that. How did you actually make that happen?
SH: OK. Well, it’s actually quite funny, because when I first saw it, you know, I’ve always been quite taken with armour and the whole idea of knights and castles and whatnot. So when the joust first finished, the knights got off their horses and queued up. They were only men jousting at this tournament and queued up to have photos with all the women. Well, of course, I was one of the women, wasn’t I? I was one of the damsels lined up to have my lovely photo with the knight. And I have it. I still have that photo, all gushy and thinking, oh, isn’t this wonderful? Isn’t it fabulous? But then as soon as I finished that part, I strode down to the herald and said, “How do I get to do this?” So I was absolutely determined. I’d already decided that this was going to happen for me. And as my friend said, as I mentioned before, to me, it was the culmination of many things coming together. It was a long history of equestrian sport, different equestrian sports for me. It was about dressing up. It was about, you know, medieval things. It was about feasting, it was about heraldry. All of that was just like a magic sort of a jigsaw that came together and it was everything that I loved and wanted to do. So at that particular tournament, I was introduced to the organisers of the tournament and they brushed me off completely.
GW: Really? Well you’ve shown them, haven’t you?
SH: Well, yeah, they walked away and I went, oh, well, geez. Because I said, wow, how do you get armour? Where do you start? I really want to learn. And it was a case of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re off to lunch.” So I thought, well, that doesn’t dent my enthusiasm whatsoever. I’d already decided that this was going to happen for me. So I went to the next medieval tournament and that was around Sydney, and I did the same thing. I approached the tournament organiser, but I got a different response this time. So he agreed to teach me. And yeah, he was going overseas to compete for a number of weeks and then came back and we were about to start and then he broke his leg. So he was out for a number of months and then horse flu hit in Australia. Yeah, that was a devastating time for everybody. So from the time I saw it and decided it was going to happen and when I actually had the chance to start, there was quite a delay. I think it was about six months of a delay. But then, once we were able to travel with our horses again, I was doing the 250 kilometre trip, one way, to get a few hits in. And yeah, I started. All I thought about was jousting from then on.
GW: So did you already have armour or did you have to get the armour as well?
SH: I didn’t have any armour, I didn’t have anything, so I borrowed bits and bobs and had a minimum amount to keep me protected. So I had my head and my neck and my torso. I think knee cops. That’s it. And that was enough to keep me safe for what I was doing. And yeah, it was recommended to me to buy a cheap armour and I said, no, no way.
GW: I wouldn’t recommend that.
SH: No, no, because I thought, well, I know I want a really good armour. I know I want to do this internationally at some point. So why not just get the armour that I want? So as a total novice, not knowing anything about armour, I was thinking, well, do I want to look like a penguin or do I want to look like a pig? Or, you know, like a dog? Because really, as a person who doesn’t know about armour, you look at how it makes you look, you know? So I found one that I loved and I just decided, well, that’s it, and I’m not going to waste my money on cheap armour. I’m going to get the one I want, and I’m so happy that I did because I’ve had the same armour. I have two now, I have a 14th century one now as well, but it’s just done me so well. It’s travelled the world so many times and it still looks great and it still feels great to joust in.
GW: Well, that’s it. Like, poor people can’t afford to buy cheap tools because then the cheap tool breaks and you just have to go and buy the expensive one. It’s much better to save up and get the right stuff from the beginning, if you possibly can. I mean, when I bought my armour, I bought it bit by bit. It was cuirass first, then it was helmet. Then it was arms, and then it was just shoulders and extra bits. And it sort of went from there. I didn’t get it all in one go and then hand over enough money to buy a new car. It was bit by bit.
SH: Yeah, yeah. Well, I was really lucky at the time because I had my armour made in spring steel because I knew that I’d be travelling internationally at some point. And weight was going to be an issue. But I was also really lucky that my armourer, he was actually an artist. Had he made a full armour before? I’m not sure. I think he had, but he hadn’t made one in spring steel before, so he grossly underestimated the time it would take to make the armour. So I got the armour at about a fifth of the price that it should have been because he said, I will never, ever make another armour like this again for that price. That’s unbelievable. So I was very, very, very lucky.
GW: Who made your armour?
SH: Alex Schreibner. I think it’s Talerwin Forge. He’s an amazing armourer. He has such attention to detail. And if you look closely at my armour, there are strips along the arms and the legs that are actually hand etched and they’re plated in real gold. And he’s even put a little flower behind one of the knees just for me, so that nobody else can see it. But the detail is exquisite. It’s really lovely.
GW: That’s fantastic. Yeah, it is quite a thing to get your armour done, and it has to be done right by the right person. I mean, the first armour I got, I got it over the internet, and this is how I know not to buy cheap armour. And when it arrived and I put on the legs first, there was enough space down the back of my greave that I could and did just to prove the point, put a bottle of wine down the back of each.
SH: Oh dear.
GW: It’s supposed to be skin tight. Yes, it was a disaster. I ended up selling it to the National Opera in Helsinki. So at least I got my money back. The opera wanted to borrow a sword. And so this props person came over and she saw my armour and was like, “Oh my goodness, can we buy that?” And I was like, oh, well, I suppose I could be persuaded. And I said, it’s completely useless for wearing, but if you want it for decoration, then I can sell it to you with a good conscience. Yeah, she was like, yeah, it’s just for this show we’re putting on. We want a suit of armour in the corner and it would be useful for other shows as well. And I named my price, which was what I paid for it. And she was like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” Aw, shit, I should have put up the price up a bit.
SH: It’s interesting, though, because, I remember seeing photos of me at my first tournament, that one a thousand kilometres, you know, the one I sang all the way to up in Brisbane, north of Brisbane, actually. And that was when I was just in bibs and bobs of armour. Borrowed armour. And it’s the idea that your self-identity. I couldn’t believe the person in the pictures was actually me because it was so epic, you know, on the horse and the lance and the armour, even though that wasn’t good armour. It was really staggering to me to think, wow, this is a new identity. This is this is who I am now. And with my armour, my 15th century armour. It’s so beautiful that it’s like a baby, we created it. My armourer created it, but it was my ideas, you know, we were testing it together and it was a real… I mean, he might not call it a collaborative project because he obviously he did all the work. I couldn’t do any of that work, but he needed me to be able to do it. My body, obviously, but it felt like this really special thing. And when he actually handed it over, it was almost an emotional experience. This thing that we’d been through together and then it being completed and now, it’s such a part of who I am. And when I see photos of me in the armour, I just identify so much that this is the real me. I feel most “me” when I’m in my armour and on a horse, I feel so connected in that steel.
GW: I think most of the people listening feel that way when they pick up a sword. Like, when I’m holding this, this is who I’m supposed to be.
SH: Yeah, it’s great. Great feeling.
GW: And it’s great that we have that available to us. I mean, great that you discovered the armour or you’ve gone through your whole life with an armour shaped hole in it.
SH: Yeah, exactly.
GW: I mean, one of my students many years ago, must have been 2003 or so, she said to me, there’s been a sword shaped hole in my life for 20 years. She was about 30 at that point.
SH: Yeah, that’s powerful.
GW: Right. So when she saw you can actually do swords, swords are real – boom, she was there. So I think most people listening will probably understand exactly what you mean.
SH: Hmm, that’s good.
GW: OK. You said something just sort of in passing, which I again, I just wanted to dial back and dig a little bit deeper into, if you don’t mind. You said “I control my thoughts.” And I absolutely agree. And I’m not disputing that in any way. But it is the gateway into the area of how do you overcome the sort of negative self-talk or bad running commentary that goes on in your head, that goes on in people’s heads, that stops them doing the things they really want to be doing. How did you get to the point where you can say casually in passing, almost like a throwaway line, as if it’s just it’s just a casual statement of fact, “I control my thoughts”?
SH: Hmm. Well, I was actually really lucky growing up and this wasn’t to do with jousting. As a 12 year old, I actually did a course about how to be in control of your thoughts, basically. It wasn’t esoteric or anything like that. It was just practical tools to be able to visualise and tools to be able to get yourself into an optimal state of thinking. So basically calm yourself so that you slow your brain wave rhythms to an alpha state. So normally we would be in a beta state, which is a negative level, questioning, criticizing. The next deeper level is an alpha state where you are calm, when you’re in a state of flow, when you’re focussed, when everything seems to be going right. So I’ve grown up as a competitive rider, being very focussed in my thinking, being very clear in my visions about what I want the outcome to be. And that has been, I guess, a powerful way to deal with competition. But interestingly, when I started jousting, it was a bit controversial because I was given a bit of a hard time. Well, a very, very hard time in fact, by a guy who was in the jousting field. That was part of the reason why I was petrified when I went to Europe for that tournament because I was being bullied and I felt petrified that if I had made a mistake at that tournament, then everything that he was putting out into the world about me would have seemed to have been true. You know, even though it wasn’t.
GW: So the stakes were very high.
SH: The stakes were incredibly high. For me, it was all or nothing. And to the point where I thought, well, what’s the point of even going, what’s the point when all this garbage is going out that’s not true. So I said damn it, I’m going, I don’t care. I don’t want to not have a go. I just want to have a go. I really want to see what it’s like to joust in Europe. I want to see how my skills match up against the others. So I actually came up with the technique that might seem a little bit gross, but it worked. But it was almost like physical training, but it was mental training. I had terrible, terrible negative things said about me. I imagined this filthy, stinking toilet in my brain. And every single time one of these negative thoughts came into my brain, I recognised it. I said, OK, I don’t want this thought in my brain or in my mind. The only place this thought deserves to be is in that filthy, stinking toilet. And then I actually had a physical action. I actually pressed my finger and that was me imagining flushing that toilet and flushing that thought away. And so every time another thought came in, I would mentally put it in this horrible, stinking toilet and flush it away. And I just kept on doing that hundreds and maybe thousands of times until I stopped caring anymore. And so that was a really very, very successful strategy and it seems very basic, but you know, other people might go about it in another way. But for me, this concept of this disgusting place that was the only place that such thoughts deserved to be. But the flushing of it, I now release that thought, it’s gone. I don’t allow this thought in my head. It doesn’t deserve to be there. I won’t acknowledge this is the truth. And I trained myself to get over that negative self-talk. And that was just at the start of my career. And then in a tournament, jousting that keeps you very present. It’s a bit like scuba diving in a way. When you’re scuba diving, you’re very present in the moment, enjoying the adventure that’s unfolding in front of you. In jousting it all happens very quickly. You’re at the start of the list. You get handed the lance, you start, you hit and then you’re at the end. It’s over. It’s all these very short, very, very short, quick experiences that come together for a whole tournament. And so I’m always looking ahead. I’m always laser focussed. If I miss, it’s like “Argh” in the moment, but then it’s over and I’m not thinking there. I’m thinking forward. I’m thinking about the next one. So I’ve trained myself because, as I said, I believe I’m in control of my thoughts. I control the way that I want to think. I am very aware of my thoughts. And so I really put a lot of energy into thinking the way I choose to think to get the most successful outcome.
GW: Do you happen to remember the name of that course that you took when you were 12?
SH: Alpha Dynamics.
GW: Alpha Dynamics? That’s really interesting because I don’t suppose most of the listeners are going to be taking up jousting anytime soon, but everyone knows what it’s like to have their mind taken over by negative thoughts, particularly negative thoughts put there by somebody else. And having an approach that can work to get rid of that is super powerful.
SH: Yeah, well, it worked for me, and it was really it was really a hard thing to do because it was very damaging, what was being said about me. But yeah, that was the solution and it really worked.
GW: What do you think that person’s motivations were? Or do you even care? They don’t deserve to even be thought about.
SH: No, I just don’t care anymore. You know, it’s their deal, it is not my deal. I don’t care. I’ve just moved on.
GW: Excellent. Yes, consign them to the stinky toilet of history.
SH: Exactly, the stinky toilet of history. I love that.
GW: OK, so now my next question is, most listeners will not have had the experience of being on a horse doing jousting. I should probably make my own experience clear. I’ve done a bit of riding and I’ve had a go at sword fighting on horseback with plastic swords because the horses are conscripts. And great fun. And it’s really obvious to me that I am nowhere near a good enough rider to be any use as a jouster. I’m never going to get to the point where it’s actually sensible for me to joust, and that’s probably true for a lot of the listeners. So what is it actually like having some lunatic in armour charging at you with a pointy stick?
SH: Yeah. Well, one of the first things that you’ll be told if you’re going to start jousting is not to look at their lance because if you do, it’s petrifying. It’s really scary. Imagine if someone’s coming towards you directed at your heart, basically, this big, long stick, essentially. You can’t not flinch and turn your head away and brace for the impact. So you just have to be confident enough to take the hit and not worry about it and be focussed on giving the hit. So you can’t come into jousting and be willy nilly about it. You have to be really intensely focussed on the target area, which is the shield of the other person. So there’s a lot of things that have to go right and when it when it all clicks, it feels really easy. But when it doesn’t click, it just feels impossible. So one of the first things you’ve got to be able to do is manage your horse. And so I guess that’s one advantage that I have because I was a very strong rider all my life that when I am normally jousting, it’s normally international. So I’m riding a horse I don’t know. Sometimes you get on the horse just before the tournament or just before the joust and you’re riding this emotional, huge animal that you don’t know.
GW: Who doesn’t know you. The horse doesn’t trust you yet, because he doesn’t know you.
SH: Of course the horse doesn’t trust you and they’re going into a scary situation which can sometimes be scary. Sometimes it’s terrifying on some horses. I was on a horse once and the horse was so petrified I could feel his heartbeat all through my body. It’s like boom, boom. I’m thinking, far out, I feel like I’m on a stick of dynamite. My heart sank and I thought all I could do is be safe. I just didn’t worry about trying to be competitive in that tournament. All I wanted to do was to take care of that horse, give it a good experience and give the other rider a good target so that they had a chance to get points. But I was just out of the competition. There have been a couple of times when that’s happened, but fortunately, that’s not most of the time. So anyway, when you’re jousting, you have to line up at the same time as the other rider. So you’ve got to keep your eye on the rider at the other end because they’re coming from the opposite direction and you’ve got to give a signal to the person who’s handing up the lance. So you’re ready for the lance and so you’re trying to manage your horse who is normally extremely excited and pick up this heavy lance and keep your eye on the other person that might be 40 metres away. Because you both want to start at the same time, you both want to grab the lance and then salute, which means hold the lance up to show each other that you’re both ready, because the idea is you take off at the same time and you hit each other in the middle. So, yeah, I mean, in a tournament, it can get very exciting because they usually play epic music and there might be a big crowd and they’re clapping and cheering. So you’ve got to manage your excitement and emotions. And I don’t know about other people, but for me, I’m very affected by music. I feel like my soul just automatically attunes if there’s music, somehow it just deeply, deeply affects me. So, yeah, the epic music, you’ve got to manage your heartbeat with all this wonderful music going on. And then it’s like when you start, the everything becomes quiet because you’re so focussed on that target. And you know, when I say a target, the target is the shield. But I’m not aiming for the shield. I’m aiming for like a one centimetre square part of that shield. I’m so laser focussed on hitting, that it all becomes like a tunnel, I suppose. And all I can see, I’m riding the horse, but I’m not thinking about the horse. I’m just focussed on that target. And then, of course, once you’ve hit, then you’ve got to manage the end as well. So you’ve got to calm your horse down, you’ve got to lift the lance up and you’ve got to stop. Because you know what, sometimes at the end, after you’ve done the hit, if it’s a really big hit, the horse might get a fright and the horse might take off. So then you’ve got to manage the end of the pass. Now, if you’ve got an audience that is not too far away, sometimes you have to throw the lance down and grab hold of the reins. Of course, you can’t see the reins because you can hardly see anything with your armour on. The ocular area is usually very narrow for safety, and you’ve got to manage a horse that might be bolting, heading straight towards a crowd. There’s a lot to think about, depending on the type of horse that you’re riding, the emotions, the emotional response of the horse in the moment, the emotional response of yourself. There’s a lot of things to manage and get right, but when everything is going well, it feels easy. Yeah, but that doesn’t always happen.
GW: OK, so have you ever been knocked off when jousting?
SH: Not in a joust. Not in a tournament, but when I was training once, it was quite funny, it was in Australia. This is very, very early days. I think this was before my first tournament. The guy who was teaching me, he actually had the newspaper come out to take some pictures of him. So we were doing a pass and his horse propped, which means he dug his toes in and sort of baulked. And so my horse thought, oh my God, there must be a panther about to pounce on us, because horses get very skittish. So my horse dug his toes in and stopped, and we both fell off immediately. Bang, hit the ground. And the newspaper person must have got a fabulous photo that we never saw, of us both charging at each other and the horses screaming to a halt, and we both hit the deck before we could even think about it. The good thing about a fall like that is you’re on the ground before you even know it. So that was the only big fall. Another time I was hit hard in a practise session and my saddle slipped. So I got to the end of the list and I was about 10 inches off the ground hanging onto the saddle. And I thought, well, this is just stupid. The horse had stopped, so I just plopped down, so I haven’t fallen off yet. It could happen at any time.
GW: I have the experience of being thrown while wearing armour, and it’s much worse being thrown on the ground when wearing armour than it is without the armour. That’s been my experience because the surface impact isn’t as bad, but it rattles you around and bits of armour bite you in various places as the ground hits you. And it’s absolutely horrible. I would much rather be thrown on the ground without wearing armour at all.
SH: Well, yes. And but see, one of the big things about jousting is you’re wearing armour, but you’re also got this massive lance that you’ve got to manage as well between your soft parts and the armour. So the lance is clamped under the right armpit.
GW: You don’t want to fall on that.
SH: Oh, no, but oh my God, the bruising that we get on our arms and the pinches, by the end of a tournament, I have even had skin ripped off the inside of my arm. It’s so painful just to hold the lance. It’s unbearable. Yeah, but I guess, everybody’s armour is different, but the pinching wow. You can tell a jouster’s arms by the bruising on the inside of the right arm.
GW: And that’s true for armoured combat on foot too. It’s armour bites. And after a while, their love bites really. It’s the armour telling you that it is there and is going to look after you.
SH: You remind me of a very funny picture I saw once, there was a novice jouster who was in a novice joust in New Zealand, and he was obviously quite scared and was holding on to his lance for grim death. He had it tucked under his elbow, was ready to go, in the right position, but he fell off for some reason. And anyway, he’s mid fall and he’s still got that lance tucked under his elbow at the right angle. So he’s falling to the ground mid air, but he’s still got that lance tucked in there. It’s absolutely hilarious.
GW: I’m guessing he fell off because he really didn’t quite want to be on the horse.
SH: Oh, I can’t remember. I just remember this picture of this lance still couched correctly mid-air. It’s very funny.
GW: OK, so you have quite a broad experience of the jousting scene, jousting in Australia and jousting in Europe. Does your gender make a difference?
SH: Yeah, it’s a good question. At the end of the day, no, because you can’t tell I’m a woman underneath the armour. I heard someone gasp once, when I lifted my visor, they went ooh, it’s a woman. They didn’t realise until the end of the tournament. And the differences, I guess, are in the size. The size of the guys is can sometimes be a lot bigger. So I’ve been jousting a man once in Texas, and he was three times the size of me. So the power that they have can be significantly more. But often you’ll find with the females, the good ones, they’ve got a strong riding background. So our connection with the horses is often much better. So, connecting with the horse that you don’t know is a really important part of international jousting. Some people might say that the difference between a local jouster and an international jouster is that an international jouster has to get on a horse they don’t know using lances they haven’t used before and just deal with those situations very quickly. And I don’t know whether it’s women connect better with horses. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that’s the same for both genders. But the women who are good jousts are very good riders, and we joust as equals with guys in the tournament. So sometimes that evens us up, I think, that when you’re a very competent rider, you can ride your horse better and get yourself in the in the right position to be able to strike. And so that can help you manage the pass. I mean, some would say that you would lose a pass at the start of the pass. If you haven’t got your horse in control. If you’re not starting calm and with everything in the right place, then you don’t have enough time to recover before the hit. So as a good rider, well connected to my horse, that helps me position well. Apart from that, I find sometimes, sometimes, not for all guys, but you know, the aggressiveness can get up. Maybe it’s the testosterone where they get really fired up by the jousting. And I tend to stay fierce but focussed and just calm. I really try and slow my heartbeat. I really try and be calm in the face of the combat. And perhaps that’s because I’m female and I don’t have that testosterone raging through my body. I would see that that is an advantage in that I can think clearly, I’m laser focussed. I’m not overrun with this intense ambition to be the king, I don’t know, to be the victor, to be the victor. I just want to be accurate every single time. That’s all. So yeah, I think those aspects.
GW: So the jousting scene has been relatively welcoming.
SH: Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ve been really embraced overseas and really grateful for the way that both the men, because it’s mainly men, that the men treat me as just another jouster on the field. I had a guy once said to me, oh, I don’t want to hit a woman. And I found that a bit condescending and I said, well, you better hold on, mate, because I’m going to hit you hard. You know, in a nice way. And I did. It’s the greatest respect to me when my male jousting friends hit me as hard as they can because they know I can take it.
GW: And that’s what you signed up for. You consented to it.
SH: Oh yeah, yeah. There’s a guy in America I actually hit. He won this world championship of jousting. That doesn’t exist. There’s not a world championship of jousting. But he’d won a competition that was claiming that name. Anyway, I hit him off his horse in Australia. And so there was a bit of a, like, come and get back at me. He wanted to get back at me and we great friends. We’re really great friends. But whenever I faced this guy, it was an epic, epic battle. Epic hits, but in the best possible spirit, we really, really have great affection for one each other. But holy smokes, when we get together on the field, balsa is going to fly.
GW: Excellent. Yeah, I’ve seen this quite a lot in my classes, where sometimes one of the male students is reluctant to hit one of the female students because they’ve been brought up and socialised not to hit women. OK, it’s much better that they’ve brought up that way than the reverse. But one of the things I’ve had to do is reframe it so that they realise that hitting this woman is necessary. She needs him to hit her properly so that she can practise the art she wants to practise and if he is not willing to hit her then he’s stealing her training time away from her. In most cases reframing it like that is enough to kind of get them over that thing and it is fine from then on. But I have seen a couple of students who were basically just not fit to train with women because they can’t go over the fact that it’s a female person.
SH: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I guess on the field, we’re wearing armour, so you can’t really tell. You’re so focussed on your target that it doesn’t matter who’s there. And it doesn’t matter who you’re facing, you want to take care of them. You want to be safe. You want to win, you want to get a great hit, but you want them to be safe as well. So you want to hit them in the right place. And that’s the priority.
GW: You’re a professional educator, and so I imagine that after handling classes full of children, there’s not much you’re scared of. Are there any parallels or crossover skills between jousting and teaching children?
SH: Yeah, I thought about this, and I think that there are. And part of that is self-care being ready for the task. You can come in to some classes of young people and if you aren’t ready, you’ll be crucified.
GW: I have kids, you’re right.
SH: Yeah. Kids can be crushingly, yeah, merciless. They’re absolutely merciless and they take a lot of fun in that as well. So, making sure you’re ready and something I actually pay a lot of serious attention to when I joust, because normally I have travelled across the world to get to a tournament. It’s cost me a lot of money. I’ve had to take time off. It’s a very, very big deal for me, being an Australian, to get to an actual tournament. So it’s a serious matter for me. So I make sure that I pay strong attention to hydration. So for two or three days beforehand, I am topping up on water all through the day to make sure that when I hit the tournament, I’m so hydrated that I won’t be disadvantaged in the heat, because normally, when you’re jousting in Europe in the summer, it can get really hot and once you get dehydrated, you start to feel the real weight of the armour. And it’s devastatingly heavy when you’re really dehydrated. It’s just not possible to joust when you’re dehydrated. So, same with the classroom. You got to be hydrated and the nourishment as well. You teach better when you’re when you’re well, when you’re not hungry, when you’re well hydrated. Same with jousting. I don’t eat during the day when I joust, I make sure I have a really good breakfast early and that I really have to manage my water on the day, though, because obviously, once you get in armour, you can’t be ducking off to go to the loo quickly. So that’s something. Also I prepare very carefully on the day of the joust, so what I do is I get ready very early. I like to be the first person on the field, if that’s possible. And same with teaching, still, now that I’ve been in education for more than 30 years, I would still type out a lesson plan if I was going to give a lesson. I still want to be clear about what is it that I’m going to be teaching today? What are the outcomes? So yeah, if you’re not prepared, you get nervous both in the classroom and on the field. So being prepared helps you feel super confident and you know you can deal with any mishap because everything else is in place. And I guess too I really pay attention to detail. So just as I was teaching a class, I’d put a lot of attention and detail into a lesson plan and be clear about exactly what to what I wanted to achieve. I pay laser focussed attention to the task on the jousting field so that I’m not wasting any energy on stuff that doesn’t matter. In classrooms, teachers can waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter, unless they’re crystal clear about what’s the learning that they want their learners to achieve and on the jousting field, crystal clear about exactly the target that I need to hit and exactly the way I need to manage the horse I happened to be riding at the time to achieve that. You know, I remember one time I was riding this enormous mare, she was like a rhinoceros, in Poland, and she was hard. She was strong. God, she was strong and she was very, very difficult to manage. And I didn’t have anybody to help me. And I thought, My God, sometimes you can switch out to another horse if there’s extra horses on a tournament. If a horse is not managing well or it’s just not a good match for the rider. And this horse was barely manageable on the first day, and I thought, OK, maybe I can switch her out. But it became apparent that I couldn’t switch her out. And so I thought, well, I just have to manage. I just have to find a way, to find another way to ride this horse. So I rode her completely differently the next day and was able to manage her. But, I had to adapt in that moment. And that’s the same in the classroom as well. If you’re doing something and it’s not working for the kids, you adapt in the moment, you pay attention, you adapt in the moment and then it’s better for everybody.
GW: Yeah. It strikes me that you have a particular kind of mental approach to the things that you do. And that’s how you do everything. Is that fair to say?
SH: Yeah. I’d like to think that if I want something to happen, I can make that happen.
GW: You’re a magician then?
GW: Excellent. OK, I have a couple of questions that I ask most of my guests and I’ll start with the first one. I have a suspicion I already know what the answer is, but I’ll ask it anyway. What is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
SH: Hmm. Well, I’m interested in what you think that might be.
GW: I’ll tell you what it might be. I think you’re one of those people that when you have an idea, you decide whether you’re going to act on it or not. And if it’s a good idea, you just go ahead and do it. And if it’s not a good idea, you bin it so you don’t have any good ideas you’ve never acted on. That’s what I think.
SH: Well, yeah, no, I’m not that good. I’m just not that good. I’d like to be that that good. And that does apply in many situations in my life, but not 100 per cent. That’s something I need to work on. But I remember, as a youngster, gee, I must have been maybe 10. I had this great idea. And gee, I wish I did it because I’d be rich now if I did. I had this idea of creating fashionable horse wear. I was a young person living in a country town in New South Wales, in Australia, and I told my parents, I want to make pink horse rugs and pink horse leg bandages and trendy stuff for horses. Yeah, because there was none of that at that time. This was decades before all this started. And I was told roundly that that wasn’t a good idea. And so I immediately just threw that idea in the bin, and I never should have done that, I should have acted in that moment and my life would have been completely different. But you know what, I don’t resent the fact that that happened or I was given that discouragement. It is what it is. But yeah, that was a really great idea and would have made me a lot of money had I acted on that at that time.
GW: But to be fair, the average 10 year old doesn’t have the resources to act on an idea like that, because you need to get designs done, you need to get it manufactured, you need to get it sold. It’s not easy.
SH: It’s not easy. But I was a determined young person.
GW: I’m sure everyone listening is like, oh, I’m certain that she was.
SH: But see, it’s different. You know, when you grow up on a farm with a wild imagination and you have limited access to resources, you dream big. I dreamed big dreams when I hadn’t travelled anywhere because I yearned to see the world and I yearned to do wonderful, amazing things. And the great thing about being a young person who’s fairly ignorant, growing up in the bush is you just do things without fear because you don’t know any better. You just go ahead and you think, well, this is what I want to do, so I’m going to do it. I’ve made a decision. I’m going to do that.
GW: So have other people taken your idea and made millions from it?
SH: Oh, of course, of course.
GW: I don’t know. I don’t know about fashionable tack. So people are doing that, are they?
SH: Oh, that’s the rage. Oh yeah, everything matching. People spend an awful lot of money. You know how people spend money on their pets? You know, diamante cat collars and fancy cat this and that. But take it to the horse level. Wow. This is major. You go into any tack store and it’s going to be mostly about fashion for the horse and for the rider.
GW: You know, the last time I was at a tack store, pretty much everything was brown leather. Oh, a long time ago.
SH: Not anymore. You’ll see a whole lot of diamantes these days.
GW: Oh God, no. Well, it’s actually quite medieval, really. I mean, you deck out the horse to look absolutely magnificent. And that’s a demonstration of your status and prestige. We’re returning to that.
SH: Yes, in a different sort of way.
GW: OK. All right, so other than your, shall we say, “tack bling” when you were 10, any others spring to mind?
SH: No. No other, I mean, that was the idea that I had that I didn’t act on that would have made me the most money and would have changed my trajectory.
GW: OK, so what would you be spending that money on?
SH: Now. Oh, oh, I would have a fabulous tournament series. It was my dream to have a tournament series linked to my motto, so my motto is to live and ride with courage, with passion and with integrity. So I’d have tournaments linked to that. So, yeah, I’d be setting up the most amazing tournaments. I also love cooking and dancing and dressing up and all that sort of stuff, all that medieval stuff. So I’d be creating the most magnificent tournament that you’ve ever seen with all the feasting and the dancing and the parades and the heraldry and the music, to create this amazing experience that people would never forget.
GW: I would just suggest that in this imaginary tournament, you hire somebody really, really competent to run it and manage it so you’re free to joust all day. Otherwise, you would be forever answering the phone.
SH: Yes. Yes, I agree. Good idea.
GW: OK, now my next question. You’ve probably already answered it. So if somebody did give you like a million dollars or some large chunk of money to spend improving historical martial arts and combat sports such as jousting worldwide. How would you spend the money?
SH: Hmm. Well, yeah, I’d set up that tournament, but there’s another level. Because there’s not that many tournaments in the world. It costs a lot of money. It’s hard to get sponsorship. A big part of it is there’s only so many great horses. You need a really specially trained brave horse to be able to do the joust. And we’re really lucky in the UK. We’ve got the most fabulous horse providers. These people provide horses for movies, and these horses are so experienced in so many things, it’s just amazing. So what I would have is like a training camp before the tournament for all the riders that’s inclusive. It’s more inclusive than anything that’s happening at the moment because when we help each other get better, that means tournaments are all safer. One tournament that I went to, because often when you go to a tournament, you have one day of practise and then you’re in, you’re at the tournament. But at this particular one, it was in New Zealand. We had three days, the first day to meet the horse and have a ride. The second day to do some preliminary training and try the armour on and do a little bit of light jousting. And then the third day, we actually had a couple of passes at the actual tournament venue, so everybody felt very settled. The horses felt right. The riders had a chance to connect with their horses. And so when it was time for the tournament the next day, everything was flowing smoothly and everything had been ironed out. So what I would want to do is have an opportunity every year where all the jousters at every level could come together and actually spend a lot of time getting a lot of feedback because it’s really hard to get feedback. I actually bought a video camera when I started, because it was so hard to get real feedback. I would analyse my own videos and look carefully at photos that were taken so I could try and improve in the moment, see where my lance was. Because when you really can’t see much, when you jousting, you see some pictures and you think, oh my God, did I do that? Or I don’t like the way that I’m starting or I don’t like the way that I’m finishing. So that opportunity for riders to get feedback and to see themselves, like take videos of other riders and help them to see themselves and understand what they’re doing. And that way, the level of safety in the sport goes up. And it’s a much happier and better sport for everybody. So I’d have the tournament, but I’d also have that training aspect, so everybody had a chance to improve.
GW: So that’s a really good idea. Am I right in thinking that the events in New Zealand was organised by Callum Forbes?
SH: Yes. Callum Forbes. Order of the Boar. He does a great tournament.
GW: He does. He’s been on this podcast before asking as your fellow jouster Toby Capwell, who you must know because jousting scene isn’t that big.
SH: Well, you know what? My armour is based on Toby’s Black Armour. So I felt when I met Toby in Australia the first time, I purposefully went and introduced myself because I wanted to let him know that my armour was homage to his armour. And it obviously looked different on me because my body is very different to his body. But yeah, his armour was my inspiration.
GW: Well, yeah, he’s a very interesting chap. We’re recording this at the end of October. His episode of this show came out a couple of weeks ago, and yes, the equestrian listeners are very enthused by it. He got into the whole being a museum conservator and curator in the Royal Armouries, in Leeds and in Glasgow and in London. His entry way into the museum industry was through jousting, which is just so cool.
SH: Yeah, very, very cool. Very cool a life trajectory.
GW: Yes. So you would organise these events with extensive training days beforehand to bring up the level. It’s something we see in our pedestrian martial arts. I mean, literally pedestrian, we are on foot, where most events these days they’ll have a tournament, but a large chunk of the event is classes and training sessions and what have you before and around the tournament.
SH: Yeah, and that’s great, and we just don’t have that.
GW: Well, I guess it’s very expensive.
SH: It’s extremely expensive. Even the balsa that you need for a tournament is expensive and that just gets broken on every pass. And the number of horses, I mean, you’re really limited by the number of horses that you’ve got. So, yeah, normally you’d have six to eight riders. I once went to a tournament in Texas that had 32 jousts and it was way too big, I was actually sitting on the field for an hour in full armour before I had a chance to get a hit because I happened to be the last one in that particular round. They came from all over America, those riders and they brought their own horses. But yeah, when you’re trying to set up training and trying to run a tournament to have those horses because remember, you don’t just have the horses ready for that tournament, those horses have to be ready all through the year. You have to feed them. You have to train them. It’s a daily expense. So this is a real limiting factor in inviting a lot of people to be able to be training together.
GW: Right, so putting a lot of money into the horses. I mean, horses have always been expensive.
SH: Yeah, well, that’d take up the million.
GW: Oh yeah. A million wouldn’t go very far with horses.
SH: It’d be a small tournament, let me tell you. Yeah. If I had a team of, say, 20 horses, think of polo teams that have twelve horses per rider, or something like that. I might have 20 horses. And even then, I could probably only have 15 riders.
GW: Wow. How do the Polo people manage it?
SH: I think they are just really rich.
GW: I only know a couple of people who play Polo and yeah, that’s pretty much been my experience. I know one guy who used to play Polo when he was young, and he was really annoyed because when his dad died, his sister ran off with a Chagall and a bunch of Dürers.
SH: What does Chagall and Dürers mean? I don’t know.
GW: OK. Chagall is a very famous painter, Dürer, German artist from the, I’m going to say, 16th century, late 16th and early 17th. I think basically we’re talking about in modern terms, several million quids’ worth of art. And she half-inched it before the tax inspectors came round. So he played Polo, because his dad was the sort of person who had a Chagall hanging on the wall. That’s the sort of rich that gets you to play Polo.
SH: Yes, it’s an extremely elite crowd.
GW: Yeah, Maybe we should come up with some way of basically converting the Polo crowd to jousting.
SH: Hmm. Are they brave enough?
GW: Now that was a gauntlet thrown to the ground with a mighty clang.
SH: Actually something I used to say. And it’s still it’s still true. I still believe it. That when I retire, I’ll retire to rodeo from jousting. But I think the cowboys might all have something to say about that.
GW: Hmm. Well, thank you very much for joining me today, Sarah. It’s been lovely talking to you.
SH: Thank you very much. It was great fun, Guy.