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Paid to Fight - Sir Phillip Leitch

This article is from the February 2024 Horse Deals magazine.

The formidable partnership of Phillip Leitch and Valiant. Photo: Rachael Walker Equine and Pet Photographer

The formidable partnership of Phillip Leitch and Valiant. Photo: Rachael Walker Equine and Pet Photographer

Phillip Leitch is the resident “Knight” at Kryal Castle at Ballarat in Victoria. As such, he is paid to demonstrate Medieval warfare, including the very popular jousting displays. Not many career options for a fighting Knight, you might think, and you are right. Phillip is also a two-time World Champion jouster.

What Phillip demonstrates in jousting and the mounted skill at arms represents the very beginning of what we know as dressage today. The importance of training and manoeuvrability was vital on the battlefield as the better trained your horse was, the more likely you were to keep out of trouble and survive. Phillip was fascinated by the history of the Middle Ages (500-1500AD), grew up with horses, and one thing led to another.

“I have always had a fascination with the Middle Ages and Knights,” explains Phillip. “And I was fortunate to have a mother who was into horses. When I got older and became interested in Western Martial Arts (sword fighting and fighting in armour), I decided to try riding in armour. I then found jousting and got into it that way. You need to be able to ride well so that you don’t have to devote much of your concentration to it. The more you have to think about riding or controlling the horse, the more it is going to detract from what you want to do.

“I’m from Tasmania, and that is where I first started jousting and getting involved with medieval combat. Once you start jousting, you become a member of only a small group of people who can do it. I’m mostly self-taught but was able to learn from a couple of people on the Mainland. One in particular, Rod Walker, helped me very much in the beginning. There are not many books on the subject, and we have been learning all the time how they did it, and nowadays we are much more accurate in our representation.

“Opportunities, however, do arise, and one of my first came via a television show that they were filming in America, Full Metal Jousting. I went over for three months training people to joust as part of the reality TV show. When I got back from the US, I had been, and appreciated that jousting was what I did every day. And to get better at it, I needed to find an environment where I got to do it all the time, and I thought that potentially could be Kryal Castle at Ballarat. But at that time, it was not doing jousting displays. After numerous enquiries, Kryal Castle changed hands, and the new owners wanted a full-time joust team. I moved from Tasmania to Kryal Castle, and I have been here for eleven years.

Knight Phillip and Valiant  during a jousting performance. Photo: Rachael Walker Equine and Pet Photographer

Knight Phillip and Valiant during a jousting performance. Photo: Rachael Walker Equine and Pet Photographer

“When I started jousting, I needed a horse, and it had to be a suitable type: athletic, good-looking, and able to carry weight. I got an 18-month-old Friesian colt called Noble Shadow Valiant, known as Valient at home. I kept him a stallion, and he has taught me as much about jousting as I have taught him. We had to figure out a lot of things together to get good. You need to have a really good connection with the horse and a really good basis in riding and dressage, as it all has to be done one-handed. I do all my riding one-handed now, whether in competition or not. We use other aids, and I give a demonstration of circles, half passes and figure eights, etc. Safety in battle is very much about positioning, so fine control over the horse is essential. The training is not difficult if the horse is courageous enough, and that in great part depends on you; never push the horse so far that it will not do what you want it to do. I got Valiant used to flapping flags and tied a piece of chain mail to him, etc, when I was lunging him during the breaking-in process. It was a slow and incremental build-up of experience. We do Skill At Arms as well at Kryal Castle, and it is not unlike some aspects of Working Equitation. Valiant turns 18 in January, and I have a Lusitano stallion in training to take over from him. He is under saddle but not jousting yet.

“The armour we use is exactly the same as they used in the Middle Ages. They were exceptional artisans. Nowadays, our best attempts at making armour are to replicate the historical armour as close as possible. It is made of steel, and the best is heat treated, which makes it spring steel, it’s hard, and won’t bend. And because it is so strong, it does not have to be so thick. Most of my armour is 1.6mm thick, and all up, it weighs 35kg. It is about half my body weight, and a lot of that weight is well distributed across my body. With well-fitting armour, you don’t feel like you are carrying 35kg. I am quite agile in my armour, and I can run, swordfight, and joust. It has been custom-made to fit me very well (at a cost of about $30,000). In my armour, I can fall over and stand straight back up again. That is something people don’t think you can do. Even back in the Middle Ages, armour for jousting would have weighed between 25 and 40kg.

For the most part, horse armour is not necessary; however, in some instances, you do put armour on the horse’s head and hindquarters when using a heavier lance. There are a couple of armourers in Australia, and surprisingly, they are kept busy.

Phillip Leitch after winning a Jousting Championship with Valiant. Photo: Rachael Walker Equine and Pet Photographer

Phillip Leitch after winning a Jousting Championship with Valiant. Photo: Rachael Walker Equine and Pet Photographer

“Nowadays, the three-metre long lance is designed with just under the last metre made out of weaker wood designed to break on impact with the opponent’s shield. Historical lances are made out of a single piece of wood, and when we use them, we put head and eye protection on the horses. The lances weigh roughly five to seven kilos, and it takes quite a bit of effort to balance it. I go to the gym to make sure I am strong enough to manage it. The object in competition today is to hit your opponent’s shield with enough force to break the lance. You are not trying to unhorse your opponent, although it can happen. In Medieval warfare, the object was to unhorse the knight, capture him and often hold him for ransom. We are recreating accurate Medieval saddles now, and they pretty much lock you in, which helps prevent unhorsing, and it rarely happens.

“Today, we have quite a few women jousting, but they did not, of course, in Medieval times. Ninety-five per cent of successful jousting is your riding skill. It’s difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous. It only appeals to the passionate, and some of the best jousters out there are women.

“I have jousted in England, Germany, France, Canada, the US and Romania, and I have been World Champion twice. At Arundel in the UK, there is a six-day tournament, and the best jousters in the world are there. I take my own armour, but we all catch ride the horses; a different one for each competition. Every five years, the Arundel winners are invited to a Champion of Champions event, and I have won that as well. The last World Championship was in Romania, and I didn’t win.
“I am fortunate to be able to re-enact the skill at arms at Kryal Castle, and I enjoy the jousting aspect of my job very much. There are two full-time jousters here. We joust 170 times a year, every weekend and every day of the school holidays. The only public holiday we have off is Christmas Day. The jousting every day at 2 pm is definitely the highlight of most people’s visit.

I spend most of my time being referred to as Sir Phil, so am accepting of that. I’m the resident Knight, and there are not many full-time jousters in the world paid to fight.”

Article by: Anna Sharpley.

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