How To Play The Game Of Horseshoes

the game of horseshoes

Introduction to Horseshoes

Whether you’re looking for a fun party game or want to get competitive, the game of horseshoes is an activity enjoyed by all ages. The equipment needed is minimal, and the rules of play are pretty simple to understand. Once you get the basics of horseshoes, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a skilled player.

For fun or organized play, this guide (hopefully) combines the best of all worlds so you can become well versed in the game at any level.

horseshoe stake in pit with a backstop

Game of Horseshoes Overview

Two 1″ diameter solid or hollow metal stakes are placed 40 feet apart. Opponents take turns throwing horseshoes at the stakes from opposite ends. The goal is to get your horseshoe as close as possible, or even to wrap around the stake. When the horseshoe wraps around the stake, it’s called a “ringer.” You can get a “leaner,” too, but they don’t count as ringers.

Players take turns throwing two horseshoes each. 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 feel like playing.

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 backyard play. It’s helpful to have color-coded horseshoes between players, too.

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

The stakes need to withstand constant hitting by heavy horseshoes. Driving the stakes about 22″ into the ground usually does the trick. Non-hollow, solid metal stakes are ideal, but 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.

A Simple Back Yard Horseshoes Court

The horseshoe “court” can be just the stakes by themselves or comprise two “pits” constructed from various materials.

Most people start out driving a couple of stakes into the ground and expand and improve their court as they get more involved in playing the game. Keeping it simple is arguably the best way to get started.

All you need to know is how to set up the court and keep the score. Here’s how to properly set up a court for your backyard game of horseshoes:

The Basic Setup:

Drive two, one-inch stakes 40 feet apart into the ground. The stakes should protrude 14 to 15 inches. The stakes can be leaning toward each other but should not lean more than 3″ from the center. Or, they can also be perfectly vertical.

The area around each stake is called the “pit.” The pit measures 3 feet by 3 feet. You can cover the pit surface with soil, sand, sawdust, or other loose material. Most people who are just starting don’t worry too much about that. It’s important to know, though, that horseshoes are heavy and can destroy manicured grass.

There can be a backstop for the pit, or not. Surrounding the pit is often a barrier that encloses the material within the pit. The pit size is officially 3 feet square but can be shorter or longer. The stake formally lies in the center of the pit.

An Official Horseshoe Court Layout

Aside from the basics of stake placement and pit area, additional components are included on an official court, like a foul line for the full 37-foot pitching distance and a foul line for the shorter 27-foot length for children, women, and elder players.

Included in official and sanctioned courts are a backstop, enclosed pit (to hold in the surface material), and pitching platforms.

Easy Backyard 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 a foul line, marked at 3 feet ahead of the stake.
  4. Crossing or stepping over the foul line renders that horseshoe a “dead shoe” and 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.


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.

pitching shoe parts illustration

How to Throw a Horseshoe

Now that you know the 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 for you to throw a shoe (also called delivery or pitch).

Before you figure out your favorite grip, you need to 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 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.

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

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.

Some Horseshoe History

two historic ladies pitching horseshoes black and whiteWhile 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.

Phil Vandermeer

Philip Vandermeer is a husband, father, retired contractor, and handyman who enjoys playing the guitar, building things with wood, and cooking. Simply, he loves everything about creating a pleasant house and home. In the past several years, he has successfully rehabbed and flipped more than a half-dozen homes.

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