How To Play The Game Of Horseshoes

horseshoe stake in pit with a backstop

Introduction to Horseshoes

In this article, we’ll talk about equipment, setting up a backyard court, the rules, and even how to refine your pitch.

In the game of horseshoes, two players take turns throwing 2 horseshoes each, at stakes placed 40 feet apart. The goal is to get your horseshoe as close as possible, or even to wrap around the stake. Generally, only the closest horseshoe scores a point. “Ringers” score 3 points. Each complete set of throws makes up one “inning.” An official game has 25 innings, but you can still have lots of fun playing as many innings as you like.

So, whether you’re looking for a party game or want to get competitive, the game of horseshoes is a great choice and a lot of fun for everyone. Either way, this guide will take you from a complete beginner to an expert horseshoe player. Similar to other backyard games like badminton or cornhole, the equipment needed to get started is minimal, and horseshoe rules are pretty simple to understand. Once you get the basics, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a skilled horseshoe player.

Let’s get into it.

Horseshoe Game Pieces – What You Need to Play

  • Four Horseshoes – two for each player.

The game is played primarily with metal horseshoes, which shouldn’t weigh more than two pounds and ten ounces. The horseshoes shouldn’t exceed 7.25 inches in width nor 7.6 inches in length. Plastic horseshoes are a safe option for children or safer backyard play. It’s helpful to have color-coded horseshoes between players, too.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the parts of a pitching shoe:

pitching shoe parts illustration

You’ll also need:

  • Two, heavy one-inch stakes, 36″ long.

The stakes need to withstand constant hitting by heavy horseshoes. Driving the stakes about 22″ into the ground leaves 14 inches of required stake height above ground. While solid metal stakes are ideal, hollow ones can also work.

  • A notepad and pencil for keeping score.

You can also buy or make a scorekeeping device for keeping track. There are plenty of cool scoreboards available online, or you can make one yourself if you’re handy. We’ll cover keeping score later on.

That’s it! It’s pretty easy to get started playing the game of horseshoes.

How to Make Your Own Horseshoe Court

The horseshoe “court” can be just the stakes by themselves or comprise two “pits” constructed from various materials. You can make improvements as you get more involved in playing the game. Keeping it simple is the best way to get started. Making your court more complex and “complete” will become a passion as your love of the game grows.

You could begin playing right away with just the stakes in place, but you will want to create a better playing experience if you follow a just few court guidelines.

Building a very simple, basic court the right way is arguably the best way to begin. Making improvements as you progress in the game will be easy and you won’t have to start over.

beginner backyard horseshoe court illustration

Three Steps To A Beginner Horseshoe Court:

1. Drive two, one-inch stakes 40 feet apart into the ground.

The exposed part of the stake should measure 14 to 16 inches. The stakes can be leaning toward each other but should not lean more than 12 degrees, or 3 inches from the center. The 2 opposing stakes should be leaning toward each other. If you prefer, vertical stakes are perfectly acceptable.

2. Form a “horseshoe pit” around each stake.

The ideal pit size is 3 feet wide by 6 feet long. The stake should be oriented in the center of the pit. To begin, mark your pit area and turn the soil inside the pit to loosen it. Loosening the soil helps the horseshoe stay put when it lands.

Horseshoe pits can vary in size. The width can be from 31″ to 36″, and the length can be from 43″ to 72″. The easiest (and best, IMHO) court layout is comprised of two, 3-foot by 6-foot pits. For the sake of discussion and for reference, this article will assume your horseshoe pit will be 3 ft by 6 ft.

3. Draw foul lines.

There are two foul lines that have to be established on each side of the court. The first foul line is for men and is marked 37 feet away from each stake, or, 3 feet in front of each stake (see illustrations). The second foul line is 10 feet in front of the first foul line. This line is intended for women, children up to 18 years old, and elderly players.

Establishing these foul lines means that men throw from 37 feet away, and women, children, and elderly throw from 27 feet away from each stake.

Improvements You Can Make To Your Horseshoe Court:

Once you have an established area and layout for your court, you may decide to step up your game and make improvements to your court for even more fun. These improvements will take your beginner court to an intermediate court, and will have most things a professional court will have.

intermediate horseh

Four Steps To An Intermediate Horseshoe Court:

1. Secure the stakes

Make sure your stakes are fully secured in the ground. If they are driven directly into the soil, they will soon begin to move and loosen. Horseshoes are heavy. Once you begin to advance in the game, you’ll want to make sure your stakes don’t move.

Drilling a hole in a heavy log or setting the stake in concrete will ensure that it won’t move for a very long time if at all. If you think you’ll eventually remove the entire court, you may want to use a log. Logs can be disposed of way more easily than a block of concrete.

horseshoe stake securing options

PRO TIP: regardless of whether you use a log or concrete, you can try inserting the stake through a tight-fitting rubber hose before inserting it into the log or setting it in concrete. That will give your stake an ever-so-slight, shock-absorbing quality and improve the overall game experience for everyone!

2. Form the pit and add a better grade material to it:

Once you’re satisfied that your stakes will stay put, you can start working on improving the pit. Carefully mark out an area 3 feet wide by 6 feet long. You can use tent stakes and string for marking the exact area you will form the pit.

Remove 4 to 6 inches of soil from the pit. Once the soil is removed, you can form a “frame” on all sides, using 2X4 or 2X6 pressure-treated lumber. Set them in place or nail them together. Ensure that your court is nice and square, overall.

The frame needs to be solid in the ground and level. It helps for it to be 1/2″ to 1″ above ground level. You can also put a weed barrier on the bottom of the pit, like landscapers cloth, or canvas. This will keep the pit material and the dirt under it from mixing together. Finally, fill the pit with play sand or blue clay.

3. Build a sturdy backboard:

Next, build some sort of backboard for your pit. The purpose of the backboard is to keep the pit material from getting thrown further and further away from the pit. It also makes it easier to rake the material back into the pit. The backboard should be no less than 12 inches high.

There are many good online sources for building a backboard. A simple backboard can be constructed from a 2X12 and 2 or 3 stakes. 4″ X 4″ fence posts or railroad ties can add beauty to the landscape and make your horseshoe pit an integral part of your backyard.

4. Add pitching platforms:

Finally, you need to install pitching platforms. They can be as simple as laying down 2X10’s side by side and extending them 16 feet. See the illustration above. Later, you can build nicer wooden platforms, or pour more permanent concrete platforms. The exact size should be 18″ wide by 16′ long.

On the platforms themselves, you can mark new foul lines. The end of the platforms can mark the foul line for women, kids, and elderly players.

Now that you have an established court, your game experience will dramatically improve.

nam throwing a horseshoe

Easy Backyard Horseshoe Game Rules

  1. Determine how many innings will determine a complete game. Officially, 25 innings make up a game, but you can play to 40 points, or a given number of innings, like 10 or 15.
  2. The player who goes first is determined by a flip of a horseshoe or a coin toss. A “flipped shoe” can be “smooth side” or “rough side” up.
  3. To play, players throw both of their shoes before the next player throws. Each throw must be behind the determined foul line.
  4. Crossing or stepping over the foul line renders that a “dead shoe”. Dead shoes cannot earn points.
  5. Players can throw from the right or left side of the horseshoe pit. This area is known as the platform.
  6. Players alternate who goes first, from inning to inning.
  7. A tally of scoring shoes is made after each inning.
  8. The player with the highest score after a predetermined number of innings is declared the winner.

Scoring In Horseshoes

After both players have thrown all shoes, then scoring is determined. The closest shoe or shoes determines the score for each inning. Only shoes that are within 6″ of the stake are eligible to score. “Live Shoes” are shoes that are eligible to score.

  • The closest shoe collects one point. No other shoes score points, except;
  • If the second closest “live shoe” is from the same player, it also scores one point.
  • Ringers are worth 3 points.
  • Two ringers by the same player score 6 points.
  • If both players get ringers, they cancel each other out, resulting in no points scored by either player.

Breaking Tie Games

In the case of ties, there are two options to break them. The first is that the game remains tied. Each player receives a half win and a half loss. Players can also move on to a one or two-inning tiebreaker or even continue playing until the tie is broken.

How to Pitch a Horseshoe

Now that we’ve covered basic rules and scoring for horseshoes, it’s time to start practicing! Did you know that there are four different ways to throw a horseshoe? There are many factors to consider when determining the best way to throw a shoe (also called delivery or pitch). Trial and error is probably the only way to really decide your personal pitching preference. Later on, as you become really good at pitching shoes, you can glean a horseshoe pitching mindset and techniques from experts.

Before you figure all that out, find the best stance and swing style for you. Right-handed players stand to the left side of the stake they’re throwing from, while left-handed players stand to the right. Keep your shoulders square to the stake you’re aiming for and keep your back straight and relaxed—experiment with stepping back from the line and moving forward as you deliver your shoe.

As for the swing, begin by bringing your arm back with your shoulders still square. Try not to use your wrist too much, as it can affect the direction of your shoe. Aim to release your horseshoe from your grip at eye level so that it arches in the air and lands at a 30-45 degree angle. Play with different approaches until you find what suits you.

The Four Horseshoe Pitches

how to hold a horseshoe for pitching

The Flip

The flip grip is typical for experienced players playing on shorter courts, giving them more consistency in their pitch. Recreational players also commonly use this grip to play on courts under 40 feet.

With the flip grip, begin by holding the horseshoe at the arch’s center. Keep your thumb on top, and three fingers gripped around the inner edge. Your pinky rests on the side for support. When you throw the shoe, it will flip as it flies through the air, hence the name. When you release the shoe, the arch should flip up.

The Reverse Flip

The reverse flip is rarely used and often only by experts in horseshoe pitching. In the reverse flip, the shoe’s arch flips down instead of up. The grip is the same as the standard flip. It takes a lot of strategizing to throw the reverse flip and isn’t recommended for beginner players.

The ¾ Turn (or 1 ¾ turn)

For the ¾ Turn, begin with the horseshoe shanks (the shoe’s sides) pointing to the right. Hold the shoe flat out in front of you. Keep your thumb on top and your pinky below for stabilization. Your other three fingers should curl around the inner edge. When you throw the shoe, it should rotate counterclockwise.

When using the ¾ Turn, you may notice your shoe wobbles in the air. You can avoid this by holding the shank closer to the end of the horseshoe. You’ll get flatter and faster rotation.

The 1¼ Turn

The ¾ and 1¼ are very similar in that they both aim to rotate the horseshoe enough to land around the stake. Professional male players mainly use the 1¼ Turn. Unlike the ¾ Turn, this one turns clockwise in the air.

Begin by holding the horseshoe flat in front of you while grasping the center of the shank. The shanks should point to the left.

Keep your thumb on top of the shoe and your three fingers curling around the inner edge. Stabilize your grip with your pinky by pressing it up from underneath the horseshoe.

Once you get the hang of it, practice holding the shank closer to the edge of the horseshoe, whichever is most comfortable.

A Little Horseshoes History

two historic ladies pitching horseshoes black and white

While similar games have been around since ancient times, the 20th century brought standard rules to players worldwide. While most agreed on how to play the game, details differed among regions.

At the 1907 World Championships, the pegs only protruded two inches from the ground. In 1920, the Chicago Horseshoe Tournament used a peg that protruded eight inches above the ground.

Most sports have an overarching governing body that oversees rules, membership, and official events. Formed in 1921, The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association began managing and sanctioning horseshoe competitions.

The NHPA outlined game rules for those events. The game is officially known as horseshoe pitching. NHPA-sanctioned games are open to five divisions: juniors, open men, open women, seniors, and elder men.

The NHPA is composed of charters, each of which has club affiliates and individual members. The association estimates that about 15 million people play horseshoes across the United States and Canada, ranging from tournaments and leagues to recreational and backyard fun.

According to the NHPA’s website, their primary mission is to promote the sport and standardize horseshoe game rules and playing procedures.

The association unifies numerous state associations, clubs, and unorganized groups and players. It also sanctions an annual world tournament, state tournaments, regional events, and leagues.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Kenneth Haar

    So you get a ringer and your other shoe is close enough for a point. Your opponent throws a ringer also but his next shoe is too far from the pin. Does anyone get a point?

    1. Chris

      Yes, Just you get the one point. The opponents ringer cancelled your ringer out.

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