Sitting on a vast stretch of prairie land in Sanger, Texas -- a city whose name elicits involuntary drawl -- is a magical space filled with dancing ponies, knights, a three-legged dog and wild-hair locals revving four-by-fours.
It's the Medieval Times Ranch, where an absurd, imagined world is drafted and rehearsed on a 241-acre plot of rural North Texas land. The Dallas-based company celebrates 30 chivalrous years of U.S. castle occupancy in 2013, so they sent out a royal media invitation, offering a tour of their equestrian breeding headquarters. The email decree promised face time with a king, weapons demonstrations, some light falconry and a free lunch. Naturally, I went. I took Catherine Downes along to capture the magic in photos. This is the story of our faithful quest.
King Sonny escorted us on our journey. He's a kind soul, a gentle ruler/actor whose costume clashed against the rented van's 1980's terrycloth upholstery. That was the first of many surreal juxtapositions that would make Medieval Times Ranch so captivating.
When we arrived at the property's edge, we passed through Ye Security Gate -- a spoils-plundering-prevention method of decidedly modern ancestry. Once ye code had been re-confirmed with ye management, we entered, rolling forward through greeting checkpoints landmarked by flag-holding serfs, dressed in 11th-century costumes.
Being a serf is like working a paid internship. It's an entry-level position for dudes with knightly ambitions. Serf life requires a minimum six-month commitment. After that its timeline fluctuates based on a laundry list of situations: knight employment turnover, order hired-in and general physical performance/mastery of titanium weaponry.
You know, usual new-employee stuff.
According to Head Knight Crew Wiard, most serfs are recent high school graduates searching for a non-boring job. I imagine the flow chart goes like this:
Escorted from our regal ride, we gathered on ye picnic tables for a feastly buffet. Medieval Times remains staunchly 11th century in many ways, but for its anniversary the company has decided to bend with dietary trends. Don't worry, it isn't going Paleo. There is, however, a new vegan option (seen in bowl), a bean stew served with hummus and raw veggies.
It's served with a spoon, and that's cheating.
If hippies demand watered-down medieval fare, they should have to eat it with their hands, same as their carnivorous peasant counterparts.
There's a dog named Sargento that lives on this ranch. Everyone loves him and fusses over him. Nobody mentions what happened to his fourth leg.
At one point I'm surrounded by a king, a knight on horseback and a three-legged dog.
I'm not stoned enough for this.
This is where Medieval Times breeds its treasured andalusians, traditional Spanish dancing horses it uses at its nine dinner-rodeo castles. They look like modified appaloosas, tricked-out and custom-built for well-heeled wizards and fairies.
They are magnificent.
Andalusians are worth a lot of cash, especially after they learn dressage choreography, but it's their bloodline that makes them a true commodity. Especially in this fictitiously real realm.
While Medieval Times corporate has been based in Dallas since the great relocation of 2007, the company opened its first castle in Spain in 1973 and its shareholders remain predominantly Spanish. They love the hell out of these horses.
This place attracts an odd cast of caretakers, Medieval Times lifers, and is helmed by Director of Equestrian Management and possibly the oddest of them all, a former knight of 26 years named Victor Lara. Everyone escorting us seems surprised -- not only that he wore a medieval outfit for us, but that he's worn anything at all.
Word around the stable is that on most days, he's shirtless.
The horse he's riding has the largest testicles of any creature I've ever seen. Size-wise, I'd pin them as midway between softballs and bowling balls. When a lady horse enters the arena, the giant-balled stallion loses his shit, causing the bouncing Lara to reel him back and prattle off a bunch of heated Spanish grumblings.
We're hanging out in the type of open-air arena where a county 4-H competition would be held. There are differences, naturally. Like the wall of knights chilling next to the battle weapons. Also, the presence of battle weapons. But the biggest discrepancy between that and this is the DJ, who's spinning some fairly righteous European metal anthems on a folding table in the corner. He's my favorite ranch person, but gets very little mention.
Head Knight Crew Wiard introduces himself and fellow Highlander casting extras. Then he tells how he became a knight at Medieval Times. And I gotta say, it wasn't as epic as I'd hoped. Six years ago, after snatching up a drama degree and some commercial work, Wiard moved to Dallas for a lady.
They broke up. Jobs were thin. Then, one day -- penniless and alone -- he saw it: The Castle. He's now been a knight for six years. We've all been there.
Then, there's a knight battle. (Yes, it's sideways. Deal.)
Becoming a knight sounds awful. They work out everyday, and to be vetted for official knighthood they have to pass both a background check and a drug test.
Those didn't even exist back in the medieval times. And the thought of a guy, dressed as a squire, relieving himself in a cup at Quest Diagnostics is the saddest/funniest thing ever.
You can't help but imagine, when watching these guys battle, what it is they do in their spare time. For instance: Where do they meet ladies? Do they speed date? And if so, is it at a round table? Do they use OK Cupid? What are their screen names? Is there a specific bar they frequent? And when they do meet a lovely damsel and she asks what he does for a living, how does he explain his passion for medieval Spanish weaponry? Does he then give her a rose, or just bow?
The courtship process remains unclear.
We wave farewell to the ranch and journey back to the Dallas castle to meet Kyle, the falconer. Having been warned on the bus by Wiard, Head Knight of six years, that the bird guys are "a little weird" I felt confident that this visit would be exciting.
I was right.
Kyle is gentle, sweet. Probably too nice for Athena, this bratty, 8-year old falcon. Personally, I think he could do better. She isn't sold on Kyle, and you can tell her disapproval is wearing on him.
If you get a falcon early enough, Kyle explains, they'll do what's called "imprinting," when they associate their handler in a parental role. "She ... hasn't imprinted with me," he says sadly. "But it takes time. Building these relationships take time."
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Sometimes Athena won't perform on cue for Kyle. Other days she'll scratch or bite him.
"But it's never ... bad," he assures. Today she's on point -- following her trainer's order to whip around the performance hall in a perfect figure 8.
Kyle happened into his line of employment, same as the others. Even Equestrian Manager, Lara, began as a stablehand in Spain, then moved up to knight in Florida and is now serving a working retirement on the Medieval Times Ranch in dusty, North Texas.
Magic, it seems, is wherever you decide to find it.