The Games We Play: A Look at Horseshoes

2013-farm-show-horseshoe-pitching-contest-16feaa171c1f26f7What’s your favorite sport, and do you know the history behind it?

Those of us who aren’t so athletically inclined to play basketball, football, (or, do you mean American football?) lacrosse, rugby, or any other variety active or contact sports don’t get as excited about organized sports as the rest of the world.  At least we’re not getting so excited about participating, but lord knows we’re all good spectators.

Most of the popular games that we play competitively or in leagues got their beginnings in martial sport, but there’s others yet that had a more humble beginning and were definitively not an elitist game.  The game of Horseshoes is one of them.

My critics are constantly begging me to tell them and show them what “tradition” it is that I’m defending, and for some odd reason my critics can’t wrap their minds around the idea that Radical Traditionalism isn’t about protecting favorite activities.  I’ve always replied that Radical Traditionalism isn’t about which cooking technique is best, or even what kind of a diet is best suited to “prop up the master race“. However, there are a few time worn traditions that I enjoy on occasion, and playing horseshoes is one of them.

The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association gives a good history of how we got the game.

“As early as the second century, before the Christian Era, iron plates or rings for shoes were nailed on horses’ feet in Western Asia and Eastern Europe. In Greece and Rome athletic contests, games of different kinds generally formed some part of religious observances and festivals. One of the four Grecian national festivals was the Olympian Games. These Grecian Games consisted of boxing, putting the weight, chariot races, archery, and discus throwing. The discus was similar in form to the modern quoit but not in size and weight.  Originally, it was a circular plate of metal or stone 10- or 12-inches in diameter. It was pitched or thrown with a strap or thong passed through a circular hole in the center, the strap being released by the player as he swung it so the discus would go the greatest possible distance. There is a tradition that the camp followers of the Grecian armies, who could not afford the discus, took discarded horseshoes, set up a stake and began throwing horseshoes at it. Horseshoe historians have not been able to discover when the game of quoits or horseshoes was changed so that it was pitched at two stakes, but it is pretty well established that horseshoe pitching had its origin in the game of quoits and that quoits is a modification of the old Grecian game of discus throwing.”

No matter how you look at it, Horseshoes was always a poor man’s game.  This is a game that was born off the hoof of the Greek army’s horses.  Literally.  It isn’t quite right to say that this was a soldier’s game either.  If we take the NHPA’s history of horseshoes it means that the practice of using discs that were open on one side, horseshoes in this case, we can only thank the opportunistic bands of people who followed in the army’s wake.

The history of horseshoes (thankfully for all of us!) didn’t stop with Greek army.  The NHPA history of horseshoes brings us up to speed on how we got to where we are today.

One of Frank Jackson's stronger competitors was Frank Lunding, pictured here.

One of Frank Jackson’s stronger competitors was Frank Lundin, pictured here.

“Following the Revolutionary War, it was said by England’s Duke of Wellington that ‘the War was won by pitchers of horse hardware.’ In 1869, England set up rules to govern the game. The distance between the stakes was 19 yards. The player stood level with the stake and delivered his quoit with his first step. There was no weight requirement but the outside diameter could not be more than eight inches. The ground around the stake was clay and all measurements for points were taken between the nearest parts of both quoit and stake. These became the rules under which the game was played in the United States but no tournaments were held or records kept until 1909. The game seemed to have been a favorite among soldiers in most wars. Returning home, these soldiers interested their home folks more than ever in the game and horseshoe pitching courts were laid out in hundreds of cities, villages, and farming communities. The impetus for the NHPA as we know it today grew out of the throwing of mule shoes in the Union Camps during the Civil War. Courts sprang up in the backyards of Union states. Rules differences arose regionally. The first horseshoe pitching tournament in which competition was open to the World was held in the summer of 1910 in Bronson, Kansas. The winner was Frank Jackson. He was awarded a World Championship belt with horseshoes attached to it. At this time, Jackson had never heard of being able to hold a shoe so it would open toward the stake, but he had been practicing to find some way by holding his shoe with his finger around the heel calk so he could pitch ringers. The games were played on dirt courts on stakes 2-inches high above the level ground with stakes 38 feet apart. Jackson had acquired the skill of pitching a ringer over the 2-inch stake and laying his second shoe on top of the stake time after time so his opponent couldn’t keep his ringer on.”

If there is only one thing to learn from this short history of horseshoes it’s that this ancient game has stayed with our people through war, famine, conquest, and infighting.  It has been with us since the earliest days, and will without doubt be with us for decades to come.  Will knowing how to play horseshoes make you a better Radical Traditionalist?  I don’t think so, but at least it might add some fun to your day.


Thomas Buhls

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