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There’s no horseplay for knights in ‘Tournament of Kings’

The emperor of Austria cannot control his horse.

He’s supposed to charge at the king of Spain and try to unseat him from his mount, but "Emperor" Chris Warren can’t get Atilla to cooperate. The horse pulls at his bridle and dances sideways.

If you didn’t know a thing about jousting or horseback riding, you wouldn’t know that something was going wrong. The struggle between horse and rider actually lends some authenticity to the joust. It seems as though Atilla doesn’t want to carry his master to his death.

But this is a Vegas show and the scene has to be finished the way it was written: Austria losing to Spain. After a few tense seconds, Warren pulls his horse around, gallops through Excalibur’s "Tournament of Kings" arena and meets his theatrical end.

Later, Warren and cast member Anthony Root laugh about the glitch.

"That’s not my usual horse," says Warren, 33, who usually rides Isis or Star. "I left him standing down there too long and he just got confused."

That’s what happens when you’re working with live animals; sometimes they’re unpredictable. But, Warren says, "Tournament of Kings" actors are seasoned riders who can handle just about anything a horse does. That’s a good thing, because they do most of their performances in a saddle.

In any one show, the knights will ride around the arena in a parade formation, joust on a horse, fall off a horse, race on a horse and sword fight on a horse.

It’s every little boy’s dream and Warren and Root live it six days a week.

Originally from Chicago, Warren moved to Las Vegas in 1997 to attend college. A year later, he fell in with the wrong crowd, a horseback-riding crowd. Even worse, a show-jumping crowd.

Warren got hooked on horses, not necessarily a good thing if you’re a poor college student. Horses are an expensive hobby, especially in Las Vegas where tract homes don’t exactly lend themselves to backyard barns.

Growing up in Chicago, he always felt drawn to country music and the cowboy way. Once he moved west, Warren found that "it fit like a glove," he says.

He found a job at a stable and, when he wasn’t show jumping, he taught riding lessons. One night in 2001, a guy came in begging Warren to teach him how to ride.

"Sure, we’ll draw up a program for you," Warren told the guy, who replied: "You don’t understand. I need you to teach me tonight. I’ve got an audition with (‘Tournament of Kings’) tomorrow."

A person might be able to memorize the various horse breeds in one night but it takes much longer to learn how to ride them. It’s a complex skill that even good riders never stop learning. Still, Warren tried.

"I couldn’t even teach him how to trot," Warren recalls. "I told him, ‘I can’t teach you to ride, but I can put you on a horse so you know what you’re in for.’ "

Warren got the producer’s phone number from his student and the next day, he had not only an audition for "Tournament of Kings," he had a role in the show. His student didn’t fare so well. For the record, Warren didn’t take his job, because the show doesn’t cast inexperienced riders.

Root, 32, was sort of an exception to that rule. He had never ridden a horse, hadn’t even been around a horse, when he got a job with "Tournament of Kings" 13 years ago.

While working at Plant World, he met the show’s producer, the late Peter Jackson. Root worked in the front, loading customers’ cars for tips. Jackson was a good tipper and, whenever he came into the nursery, Root made sure he helped him.

Root is tall, broad-shouldered, fit. The epitome of a knight. If you were casting a movie about knights, you would hire him. He got to know Jackson, so when he lost his Plant World job, Root called him.

Eventually, Root was hired to work in the stables at Excalibur, where the show’s horses are kept. The barn manager taught him how to ride and, within three months, he had a part in the show.

"The first time riding for the show, I was so nervous, I couldn’t feel my legs. And you kind of need your legs to ride a horse," Root says.

Of all the things he had to do as a "Tournament of Kings" knight, none was as hard as overcoming that stage fright. Even now, he still gets a little bit of it.

But the stunts were "easy" compared to that, Root says. Jousting is all about muscle memory and relying on your training. Sword fighting is pretty simple. That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous. Jousting is a complex skill that can take several months to acquire, says company manager and stunt coordinator Ivan Caulier. For the joust, one must be coordinated and bright. They use break-away lances for the stunt but there’s always a risk for injury.

"There’s no room for stupidity in what we do because that will bring up a pretty serious accident," Caulier says. "Paying attention is serious. You’ve got to realize, you’ve got a horse going 25 or 30 miles per hour. You’ve got another coming at the same speed. There’s a moment when the tip of your lance is going to hit the other guy’s shield. You’ve got to be very accurate, you don’t want to hit a guy in the head."

Falling from the horse, which the knights do after they have been "speared" by an opponent’s lance during a joust, is probably the most physically demanding.

Root and Warren both have had injuries. Root recently cracked a rib during a bad fall and was on light duty for about six weeks. He has partially separated a shoulder and developed a bulging disc in his back, both caused by a fall.

Warren has suffered a separated shoulder and broken ribs; the "little things" he calls them.

To him, the most challenging aspect of his training was being as good as he possibly could be so that he could perform at his co-workers’ level. Still, falling off of a perfectly good horse, while it’s moving, is hard.

"I was always taught how to stay on a horse. I came here and they taught me how to fall off," Warren says. "It was definitely unnatural, at first. The hardest part was trying to figure out how to get off a horse without hurting yourself."

Every day, they get up with new bumps and bruises, Root says. It comes with the territory.

"I feel like I’m 20 but I’m 32 and my body feels like I’m 40," he says. "I’m young but in this business, I’m not. The same with athletes in football. You may have the older players with experience but a 35-year-old can’t keep up with the 20-year-olds. Someone said something like that the other day. It made me think."

Still, he says, "I’m going to fall off a horse as long as I can."

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.

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