The Official Rules of Horseshoes

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YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD THE SAYING THAT, “CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES” AND SOME OF US MAY HAVE EVEN TOSSED A FEW OURSELVES, BUT HOW MANY CAN CONFIDENTLY SAY THEY KNOW ALL OF THE INS-AND-OUTS OF THIS AGE-OLD GAME?

WE SPOKE WITH CHRIS NANNEMANN, PRESIDENT OF THE WYOMING HORSESHOE PITCHING ASSOCIATION, AND ASKED HIM TO BREAK DOWN THE OFFICIAL RULES SO WE CAN ALL LEARN HOW TO PITCH PROPERLY.

The game of horseshoes, for the most part, is pretty simple. All you need to get started is two stakes, four horseshoes, a hammer, and some level ground. You first need to drive the stakes in the ground 40 feet apart, leaned slightly toward each other, and then you’re ready to start pitching. Generally, you stand even with the stake, with a player on either side, and then take one step toward the other stake as you pitch each shoe underhanded to the pit. After you have pitched both shoes, your opponent then pitches both of theirs. Next, you figure out the score for that pit:

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  • A “ringer” is when the shoe encircles the stake so that you can touch the tips of the shoe with a straight edge without touching the stake. A ringer is worth 3 points.
  • A “leaner” is when the shoe is leaning against the stake in some sort of upright position, but not encircling it. Leaners are worth 2 points. Note: some people don’t count leaners, so be sure to agree on this before you start.
  • A “close shoe” is any shoe that is within a horseshoe width of the stake, measured at the tips. Close shoes are worth 1 point.
  • Scoring is usually worked out by what is called cancellation scoring. This means that if both pitchers have a ringer, they cancel each other out. Then the closest “close shoe” gets the point. If one person has two close shoes, they get two points, unless the opponent has one shoe that is closer.

Whoever scores on the pit then pitches first for the next one. If there is no score, you switch order.  Games are usually played to 21 points, and there is no need to win by 2.

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The game of horseshoes, for the most part, is pretty simple. All you need to get started is two stakes, four horseshoes, a hammer, and some level ground.

What I described above is generally referred to as the “backyard” style (or rules) of horseshoe pitching.  This is because you can do it just about anywhere. There are many groups around the country that only play this type, and some of them hold big money tournaments.

Another type of horseshoe pitching is called “sanctioned.” The National Horseshoe Pitching Association (NHPA) is the governing body. They have set rules and regulations for leagues and tournaments that are very specific.  For instance, there are different foul lines; so that men, women, juniors, and elders don’t all pitch from the same distances. Also, they hold state and national championship tournaments, and just about every state has at least one NHPA sanctioned charter. You can find nearly everything you ever want to know about horseshoe pitching on their website at www.horseshoepitching.com. There is a link if you want to find a local club to pitch with, court construction designs, rules and regulations, statistics, hall of fame, etc.

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If you don’t have anyone to pitch with, don’t worry, horseshoe pitching online has recently sprung up.  There are a few different groups on social media that run leagues and tournaments online. Pitchers must live-stream their games. They count all points and ringers and call them out to the camera. So even if you don’t have anyone to pitch against, you can now pitch alone, but still have opponents to play against. Recently, the first ever Horseshoe Pitching Online World Tournament was held.

I am the current president of the Wyoming Charter of the NHPA. I started pitching sanctioned horseshoes in 2006 after getting out of the Navy and moving back to Wyoming. My dad asked me to play in the local league that summer, and after just a few weeks I was hooked, literally. I quickly went from disbelief that sanctioned, competitive horseshoes even existed, to searching online for better horseshoes, because the cheap ones I had didn’t have good enough hooks. And just a few years later I was running the local league, and eventually won my first state championship in 2013.

Whether you just want to play a game on your camping trip, or if you decide to get competitive about it, horseshoe pitching is just wonderful. It is something just about anyone can do for most of their life. I have pitched against 5-year-old and 85-year-old opponents. I have met some amazing people through the sport, and I have friends across all the country. I encourage you to get outside and give it a shot.  You may just fall in love with it like I did.

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