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Riding at the Top of Her Game

Lily Fisher-Flaherty is the first woman jousting champ in 55 years

When Lily Fisher-Flaherty first got Sunny he was ­skinny, in poor condition and skittish around people. “I was afraid to ride him.” Now, she says, the spirited palomino American Warmblood “is my horse of choice.”

Kicking up dirt, a girl and her horse gallop hard through three arches in a dusty field. The girl’s lance, six feet long and chiseled to the point of a needle, is aimed at a ring that may as well be a dust speck.
    The girl is Lily Fisher-Flaherty, a 19-year-old college student who lives in Lusby. Her horse is Sunny, a spirited palomino American Warmblood. Together, they are the winners of the 2016 Maryland State Jousting Tournament.
    Fisher-Flaherty is the first woman to win the tournament since jousting became the official sport of Maryland in 1962. In session, the Maryland House of Delegates celebrated her historic achievement.
    But if on the day of the tournament you had asked Fisher-Flaherty whether she expected to make history, she would have told you, No.
    Becoming a jousting champion is no easy feat. A competitor must first rise to the professional level by securing six wins in statewide competition. There is no age limit to compete, and most of Fisher-Flaherty’s 25 competitors were men with at least 20 years’ professional experience.
    This was Fisher-Flaherty’s first year competing at the professional level.
    Fisher-Flaherty is an ambitious woman. In addition to attending the College of Southern Maryland for pre-medical studies, she works up to three jobs at a time, volunteering at the Prince Frederick Animal Hospital and working as a lifeguard and aquatic safety instructor at the Edward T. Hall Aquatic Center.
    She began jousting at eight. Her first tournament was the Christ Church Joust in Calvert County. She was so small at the time that the announcers joked, Here comes that little girl on that big horse!
    As she puts it: “I remember the concept was completely crazy to me. There is no way I’m going to be able to coordinate myself to get my horse straight down the track and aim for these rings. But once I did it that first time, I said, You know what? I want to do this again.”
    So, as in everything else she sets her mind to, Fisher-Flaherty threw herself into the sport. She began to practice every day, winning her first competition at age 10.
    Fisher-Flaherty’s mother Viviane isn’t surprised.
    “I had no doubt,” she says. “Lily could win every joust if she practiced enough.”
    Viviane Fisher-Flaherty, who has been riding horses since infancy, has been her daughter’s coach and mentor from the start. The champ recalls training with a broom handle, knocking down Dixie cups that her mother duct-taped to the top of jump stands.
    Today, the senior Fisher-Flaherty coaches the junior and many other young jousters in the Tynnewydd Riding Club. Her coaching style recalls the technique of riders in battle. She emphasizes balanced seat — using your legs to guide and steer the horse — over other methods.
    “You want to be nonconfrontational,” she says. “Because you’ll never win. Horses will always be horses first. Then they’ll say, I love you.”
    “Horses don’t have ulterior motives,” Lily Fisher-Flaherty says. “They always do something for a reason.”
    She has Sunny’s needs down to a science.
    “When I first got him,” she says, “I was afraid to ride him.” He was ­skinny, in poor condition and skittish around people.
    Now, she says, “He is my horse of choice.” She will continue to ride with Sunny in all her jousting competitions.
    “He’s so goofy and mischievous,” she says. “He’s very smart and knows how to open all of the doors with his lips. He’ll open the stalls of all the other horses — except the one who likes to chase him around.
    “He’s like a five-year-old that gets into the cookie jar.”
    For now, Fisher-Flaherty is going to continue to compete in jousting at the state and national level. She wants to promote the sport.
    “When I was being recognized by the state,” she says, “I was thinking just how easy it could be to get people to learn about the sport.”
    “I’m still learning,” she adds. “I think about all the knowledge in the world. No one knows everything, but you can at least try.”
    In 10 years, Fisher-Flaherty hopes to still be riding horses. In addition to graduating in orthopedics, she hopes to own a farm, where she can teach others just as her mother has done.
    “She’s done so much with her life,” Fisher-Flaherty says of her mother. “She no longer rides, but she still is the best rider. The way she thinks about riding and her compassion for horses and students inspire me to be a better person every day.”
    Fisher-Flaherty also hopes to inspire girls of all ages looking to break into riding and jousting.
    To these girls, she says: “Even though some things seem far out of reach, you can accomplish them. Over time, you can achieve anything that you put your mind to.”