The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Horsehoes

Get into it for cheap and love it for a lifetime.

Get into it for cheap and love it for a lifetime

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Throw a bent piece of metal at a straight piece of metal. At its core, the game of horseshoe pitching could hardly be simpler. The shoes are comfortably heavy and the "clank" as they hit the stake is satisfying. The object is to land the horseshoe around the stake (a "ringer") or at least within 6 inches of the stake. As in hand grenades, close counts. 

While the game itself has its charms, one of the things that makes horseshoes most appealing is accessibility and community. Earl Vanderhart is the man who taught me how to pitch a horseshoe, and is also my grandfather. He won both the world championship and the Canadian national championship in his division in 2006, and has won the Ontario championship as well. 

When I asked him what makes horseshoe pitching such an appealing game, he told me "It's the cheapest sport you can get into. You can play in your backyard or at your trailer park. You can play it longer than other sports. I still play tournaments even though I use a walker." Neither money, age, or skill-level are barriers to getting involved. And, he added, "it's good for drinking beer."

Most towns have a horseshoe club that will accept all comers. What's more, they are generally divided up into skill-based divisions so beginners can start with someone at their skill level. But, adds Vanderhart, "it's competitive. People don't realize how competitive until they get involved."

Earl Vanderhart, 2006 Canadian and World Horseshoe Pitching Champion (Courtesy of Earl Vanderhart)

It's not for everyone, but that it's not for everyone is also a major part of the appeal. Horseshoes is not a big money TV-sport. It's decidedly grassroots, and that gives most horseshoe pitching clubs much more of a community-like feel than many other sports. Because the pace of the game leaves plenty of time for chat, they're almost as much social clubs as sporting organizations. 


The history of horseshoes is not tremendously well-documented, although it is fair to assume that wherever horseshoes (the actual shoes for horses) exist, someone has probably thought of throwing them at a peg. According to André LeClerc's History of Horseshoe Pitching in Canada, variations on the game were played by ancient Greek and Roman soldiers. Initially, horseshoes were bent into hoops and thrown like a discus. Over time, these ancient tossers began to throw more for accuracy than for distance. 

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In Canada, the game was well-established by the turn of the 20th century. The earliest record of a game of horseshoes in Canada that leClerc could unearth was a newspaper article covering  a monthly meeting of the "Horseshoe Flinging Club" of Vancouver. By the 1930s, clubs across Canada were well-attested, with the first Canadian Championship held in 1927. 

Since then, the game has expanded with associations in most provinces. It has also produced several legends, including Elmer Hohl, 6-time world champion and 19-time Canadian champion, and Dean McLaughlin, both from Ontario. 

What you need to know to get started

The game of horseshoes is relatively simple. Each player takes turns throwing two horseshoes at a stake which is set 40 feet away in a pit fills with a soft substance, such as sand, to cushion the landing. Each round, in which each player pitches two shoes, is called an "end" or an "inning". 

A "ringer" is a shoe that encircles the stake, and is worth three points. If in doubt as to whether a shoe is a ringer, a straight edge touching to two points at the ends of the shoe (heel caulks) must clear the stake. 

A "shoe in count" is a shoe that comes to rest with any part of the shoe within six inches of the stake. This is easily measured by checking if it can be reached by another shoe that is around the stake. A "leaner" is a shoe which is touching the stake, but not around it. It's worth one point. 

All other shoes are "out of count" and are worth no points. 

The game goes on until either a predetermined number of points (usually 40) is reached by one player or a predetermined number of shoes (also 40) are thrown. If the score is tied at the end, the tie can be broken by a two-end tie-breaker (repeated until the tie is broken) or the game can be called a draw. 

There are two common ways of scoring. "Cancellation" scoring means that only one player can score in each end. Ringers cancel each other out, and if both players have a shoe in count, then the closest one counts for one point. "Count-all" scoring means that all points are counted. 

If in doubt, consult the official rules of the Horseshoe Canada Association. 

What you need to have to get started

Horseshoes for pitching are not the same as those worn by horses. They're larger, wider, and have points at the ends of the shoe, called "heel caulks", which are used in scoring measurements and can help the shoe stay on the peg. They're relatively cheap and can be had at any department store. However, if you are going to a horseshoe club, it is likely that there will be some extra horseshoes around to borrow. Wear comfortable shoes, bring some snacks, and you're all set. 

What you need to do to get started

Vanderhart says the best way to start horseshoes is to actually go down to a horseshoe club. Most towns have them, and because the communities are so welcoming, you're pretty sure to find someone to help you get started. 

The first thing you need to do is throw a few shoes to find out what grip or style you're most comfortable with. The two main styles are "flip shoe" in which you grip the shoe at the bottom of the "U" and throw it so it flips end-over-end. This style is usually suited to beginners. The other is "turn shoe", in which the shoe rotates, usually 1 and ¼ rotations. This is a little trickier to get the hang of, but it's the style that top players use. Vanderhart recommends choosing the style that feels most natural. You can always keep experimenting as your skills get better. 

Top tips: 

  • Consistency is key. 
  • Start pitching however you feel comfortable. 
  • Make sure everyone knows you're pitching so you don't hit anyone. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask for tips. 
  • Don't let go on the backswing. It sounds obvious, but it happens all the time.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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