Hopefuls train to be Medieval Times knights at Texas ranch

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By JOANNA CATTANACH
The Dallas Morning News


SANGER - They're training for a job every little boy dreams of: getting paid to run around in costume, swing swords on horseback and play the role of hero or villain while crowds cheer.

Being a knight is like being Peter Pan," said Clint Mally, a knight for Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament in Lawrenceville, Ga.

"It's always fun to go to work," he said.

Mr. Mally is one of several experienced knights who trained six novices this fall at the entertainment company's Chapel Creek Ranch in Denton County. Twice a year, young men drawn here from across the country learn to perform in the 11th-century-inspired dinner show.

The grueling six- to eight-week course teaches physical fitness, horsemanship and gaming skills.

It's fun for an adventurer like Mr. Mally, a dashing young knight who strides confidently around the ranch clad in a tight T-shirt and sparkle tights.

"I probably won't be able to get a regular job again," he said.

Ryan Richmond, a trainee from Dallas, joined the knight program after losing his financial aid for college.

A music therapy major at Southern Methodist University, he performed as a trumpeter at Medieval Times in Dallas. His manager recommended him for the training program.

"Right now," he said, as swords and axes clanged behind him, "I'd be teaching little bratty kids how to play the trumpet."

'Rule of the ranch'
"Who's tying who, guys?" Tim Baker, director of stunts and choreography, asks the trainees as they struggle with reins and fumble with bits, trying to shove the metal pieces through the horses' teeth.

At 45, Mr. Baker is a rarity in the 100-plus member knighthood. Most knights wash out in their mid-30s, he said. The physical demands of the show, regimented diet and training are tiring. "It's a lifestyle choice," he said.

For the newbies, the horses are the most difficult part of the training.

"Has anyone fallen off yet?" knight trainee Daniel Townsend of Hanover, Md., jokingly asks the guys gathered near the large, round outdoor training pen where Mr. Baker directs several trainees. Most, like Mr. Townsend, have no experience on horseback. Falling off is routine.

Ryan Hinson of Baltimore did a "spiderman" twice the day before - jumping off the horse instead of falling, and gripping onto the concrete walls of the pen for dear life. The former electrician apprentice was hanging ceiling fans before he joined the knighthood.

Injury is always a possibility in the two-hour show, which includes intricate fight scenes with real weapons - swords and axes that weigh 4 to 8 pounds.

"Rule of the ranch: If you fall off, you clean the kitchen," Mr. Baker reminds the riders as they circle him in the dirt-packed training pen.

As the riders continue rounds in the pen, Mr. Baker urges the men to guide their horses in a walk, a trot and circles.

It doesn't always work.

"Reins are there to keep your balance," Mr. Baker reminds the novice riders.

Mr. Baker's assistant, Jim Collins, manager of knight development, feels for the guys. Many struggle with the physical and mental demands and get discouraged, such as Kevin Bleau of Lyndhurst, N.J., who regularly cleans the kitchen.

Mr. Collins spends extra time with "Blue," encouraging him to keep working. It's not all about strength. It's about consistency, he reminds him.

'Towel of weakness'
After a brief lunch break, the men gather in a side yard where Mr. Baker has set up extra-large pull-up and parallel bars. Each knight challenges his partner during his dips and pull-ups, which build triceps, biceps and chest muscles.

As for those who can't pull up?

"Bring forth the towel of weakness," says Mr. Mally in a booming British accent. The large terry cloth towel is stretched under the knees and used to hoist up the weak.

Strength isn't a problem for mild-mannered James Pasquale of Kissimmee, Fla. Mr. Pasquale, who started in the company's sound department before eventually transferring to the knight program, is the kind of trainee Mr. Baker looks for.

Mr. Baker, a knight for 25 years, seeks someone who has a good work ethic and can handle the job. "Some of the most unlikely guys take to it," he said. That can mean current employees, like Mr. Pasquale, who've proved themselves in other areas.

Mr. Pasquale, who operated the spotlight in his previous job, is excited to perform.

Instead of following people with the light, he said with a smile, "I get to run around and be followed by the light."