The Gentle Art and Sport of Playing Horseshoes

A look at playing horseshoes, an ancient game still played solely for fun, including rules and scoring, the pitch, levels of perfection and a diagram of a horseshoe court.

| July/August 1988

Playing horseshoes: A look at this ancient game still played solely for fun. 

The Gentle Art and Sport of Playing Horseshoes

Crrr-ING. What the sound of a can opener is to a cat, the resonant chime of a horseshoe striking a steel stake is to me. Give me that sound, and I will search out its source and stand pathetically on the sidelines until someone orders me off or invites me in. I love pitching horseshoes, not because I'm particularly good at it — I'm not — but because it is all the things I want in a game. It is simple and straightforward, yet challenging enough to allow me some pride in a good pitch and an excuse for a lousy one. It can be played either alone or with other people, perfect for a sometimes-social, sometimes-hermit person like myself. It is a friendly, leisurely sport, but one that is always, in the end, a contest. No insipid "ungame," horseshoes is played to be won, whether in good fun or fierce competition. It is also portable and inexpensive, requires no particular athletic prowess and can be played almost anywhere, by almost anyone, young or old.

No wonder, given the game's democratic nature and competitive spirit, that pitching horseshoes is at least as proverbially American as apple pie and 4th of July fireworks. According to the National Horseshoe Pitchers' Association (NHPA, Munroe Falls, OH), some 30 million of us enjoy the game. We play it in our back yards, at picnics, behind gas stations and firehouses, in churchyards and prison yards, in summer camps and retirement communities, and just about anywhere else there's enough room to pound a couple of pieces of pipe into the ground and throw horseshoes at them. Our great-grandparents played the game, and chances are our great-grandchildren will, too.

Sports historians, in fact, figure that the game of horseshoes was invented some 2,000 years ago, only shortly after the invention of horseshoes themselves. The prevailing theory is that Roman foot soldiers, following mounted troops and thus no doubt accustomed to watching carefully where they planted their feet, picked up castoff horseshoes and used them as substitute quoits. You have to reach back a few hundred years earlier to know about quoits. That game was played by tossing a heavy, flattened metal ring—a real quoit—at, and with any luck onto, a peg. The soldiers simply used horseshoes instead.

Before long, throwing horseshoes at a stake became a game of its own. Both quoits and horseshoes were played in eighteenth-century Europe, with horseshoes generally viewed by the rich and noble as a vulgar, poor man's version of the proper and genteel game of quoits. Ever eager to thumb their noses at aristocrats, American colonists played horseshoes almost exclusively, making the game somewhat a symbol of the common citizen. "The colonial War of Liberation," sniffed the Duke of Wellington, "was won on the village greens by pitchers of horse hardware." Tut, tut, Duke; let's not be a sore loser.

For the next century and a half, the game was played with real just-off-the-animal horseshoes. If you ever get a chance to try doing the same, don't, for your hand's sake. Throwing the real thing, complete with burrs and nail holes, is akin to tossing around a particularly nasty scratching, biting rodent. The other trouble with real shoes is that they, like the horses that wear them, come in different sizes. There is no fun in throwing Shetland pony shoes against an opponent pitching Clydesdales.

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