Hard hits down on the farm with 'Full Metal Jousting'

The main building may be clad in stone and surrounded by rolling green fields, but it's no castle, and this is not Merry Old England. Nevertheless, there are suits of armor, horses, lances and pennants snapping in the breeze.

On Sunday, Feb. 12, History premieres "Full Metal Jousting," a competitive reality series from Craig Piligian's Pilgrim Films ("Dirty Jobs," "Top Shot," "The Ultimate Fighter").

It takes the medieval sport of jousting on horseback and updates it to the 21st century, with modern suits of steel armor (for man and horse), wooden lances and high-speed cameras capturing all the action in the lists as jousters charge each other at 30 miles an hour -- and sometimes don't make it to the other end.

An elegant horse farm covering several thousand acres in central Mississippi is home to 16 jousters, seven coaches -- led by top trainer and jouster Shane Adams -- and a herd of heavy horses, all belonging to Adams, including Percherons, Belgians, shires and an American Cream.

Raised around Arabian horses on a farm in Ontario, Canada, Adams always had an interest in the tales of knights and horses.

"I dabbled in dinner theater for a few years," says Adams, lounging in a timber-and-stone pavilion on the farm property, "and then realized I wasn't living my true dream of being a knight in shining armor. I was a knight in shining polyester and tinsel. So, I left the theater world and created my own traveling road show, the Knights of Valour."

Adams wanted to turn jousting into a modern martial art and co-founded numerous competitive events around North America. Impressed by what Pilgrim Films had done with "Ultimate Fighter," he put in a call.

"Within 10 minutes," he says, "I got a call back, talked to Craig Piligian himself. The next day, I was at their office, and we started building a competition show. It's $100,000 to the victor at the end."

Piligian had already seen a 2010 New York Times article about jousting.

"We were looking for the next extreme sport," Piligian says. "I think it will come across in the show that we're really taking it seriously as a sport."

Working with Adams -- also the show's host -- and a commission of experts, including veterinarians and attorneys who specialize in risk management and equestrian sports, the producers assembled a rule book and safety standards for the men and, most especially, for the horses.

"My horses are more important to me than my own blood," Adams says. "I would never allow any harm to come to any of my horses whatsoever. … I stress, our horses will never be in any danger of being struck by a lance, ever."

The jousters, on the other hand, are at plenty of risk of being struck by the long wooden lances, but they're generally a tough lot. Among the 16 are a handful of Medieval Times knights eager for a taste of the real thing, a few horse trainers, a show jumper, a firefighter/paramedic, a pair of former Marines, a couple of polo players and a couple of rodeo cowboys (or three, since one of the Marines was also in the rodeo).

As with many reality shows, the competitors live together -- in luxury suites above the elegant stables (it's hard to tell who lives in more posh circumstances, the jousters or the horses). Vans take them down to the lists, which are set up in an open field, with an archway for the jousters to ride under to make a proper entrance.

On this particular sunny, cool October day, none of the jousters is knocked off his horse (although the following day reportedly featured a double unhorsing), but there are a lot of hard lance hits, and more than one jouster gets his bell rung pretty well.

It's this combination of hard hits and danger that History's senior vice president of programming, Dirk Hoogstra, hopes pleases the channel's largely male viewership, used to such high-octane and high-testosterone shows as "Ax Men" and "Ice Road Truckers."

"As a guy," he says, "I'm going to watch it initially because who's not going to watch that impact, the real joust? You've seen it in movies, there's Medieval Times, but this is the real deal. That's what's going to bring men in, and then it's up to us and Craig and Shane to get all of our viewers to be passionate and get into that world.

"Seeing a promo of slow motion, two guys on huge horses charging at each other at 30 miles an hour -- I think our guys are going to respond to that."

Adams is convinced that one day, jousting will be more than just exhibition and entertainment.

"This competition and this sport is going to be so huge," he says, "just wait."