Horseshoes pitches in with a classic charm

Alan Francis tosses a horseshoe.
Alan Francis has won the World Horseshoe Tournament 26 times.

Horseshoes is a sport for the ages. Its origins date back centuries, yet its timeless appeal attracts modern players who might start in childhood and continue into their 80s and 90s. It’s a rare competitive sport that encourages players to participate all their lives.

While “pitching horseshoes” might bring to mind a leisurely backyard game, it is played at the competitive level and offers national championships for men, women, and youth.

Professional pitch

Qualifying pitchers compete in events such as the World Horseshoe Tournament July 17 to 29 in Lansing, Mich. As the world’s largest sanctioned horseshoe tournament, it will attract about 955 competitors from at least four countries, according to Laurie Lampkin of Bloomfield, Ky. She is the National Horseshoe Pitching Association’s (NHPA) second vice president and its World Tournament coordinator.

The NHPA sanctions the annual World Horseshoe Tournament, state association tournaments, regional and open events, and offers a league program. The organization strives to standardize the rules, equipment, and playing procedures.

The rules for competitive horseshoes are detailed on the NHPA website, Players must compete in four regular tournaments to qualify for the World Tournament.

In addition to the World Tournament, every July the NHPA sponsors “Pitch Horseshoes for Health Month” to promote horseshoes as a low-impact sport while still providing exercise with walking, bending, and stretching.

“A lot of doctors recommend it because it’s very healthy for all ages,” says Lampkin. “It’s great exercise. We hardly have any game-related injuries unless you get hit by a horseshoe, which we try not to have.”

Excellence at every level

Sarah Chaffee became the youngest-ever champion of the women's division at the World Horseshoe Tournament.
Sarah Chaffee became the youngest-ever champion of the women’s division at the World Horseshoe Tournament.

Many people who played horseshoes just for fun as kids eventually progress to competitive horseshoes, Lampkin says. This includes American horseshoe champions Walter Ray Williams, Jr., and Alan Francis. Williams has won six Men’s World Horseshoe Pitching titles, and is also a pro bowler who holds the record for all-time standard PBA Tour career titles.

Francis began competing in horseshoes when he was nine, and he’s won the World Horse Horseshoe Championship 26 times, more than any other competitor in the history of the event.

“No other sport has anybody who’s won 26 world titles as an adult. He is so good and willing to help anybody—it just comes natural for him,” says Ron Murphy, co-owner of Ron & Polly’s Horseshoe Pitching Supplies in Grapeland, Tex.

Murphy’s business is an official NHPA distributor of horseshoes, pitching supplies, and accessories, and it’s the main distributor for all official horseshoes in the U.S. Competitors must use horseshoes sanctioned by the NHPA, Murphy explains.

Approved horseshoes can’t weigh more than two lbs and 10 oz and most players prefer American-made horseshoes. The typical player owns eight to 10 pairs of horseshoes—though one collector in Wisconsin has nearly 600, some dating back to the 1930s.

Murphy enjoys mentoring players as they search for their ideal horseshoes.

“I’ll go watch them throw a little bit and I can tell if this is going to be the shoe they need based on how they throw it,” he says.

Murphy has been a distributor of horseshoes and pitching supplies for 17 years. His wife, Polly, is a horseshoe champion in Texas. Murphy has played horseshoes throughout his life, first with his family and later at tournaments.

“My biggest thing … is the camaraderie with all the different people. I’ve met people from all over the country I never would have gotten to meet if it hadn’t been for horseshoes,” says Murphy.

Horseshoe pitching through the ages

This worldwide sport began as a game played with readily available materials. According to the Clearwater Horseshoe Club in Clearwater, Fla., Grecian armies’ civilian camp followers—such as soldiers’ wives and children—set up a stake and gathered discarded horseshoes to toss at it as a modified version of discus throwing.

During the Revolutionary War, soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army similarly took shoes cast off the army horses and pitched horseshoes. England’s Duke of Wellington later quipped, “The war was won by the pitchers of horse hardware.” In 1869, England set up rules to govern the game, and these became the rules by which the game was played in the United States as well.

Record-setting pro-bowling champion Walter Ray Williams, Jr., has won six Men’s World Horseshoe Pitching titles.
Record-setting pro-bowling champion Walter Ray Williams, Jr., has won six Men’s World Horseshoe Pitching titles.

During the U.S. Civil War, soldiers in Union camps threw mule shoes. Horseshoe pitching courts eventually went up in hundreds of communities.

The first horseshoe pitching tournament with competitors from across the world took place in 1910 in Bronson, Kans. In 1919, the National League of Horseshoe and Quoit Pitchers formed, and in 1925, the organization became the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America, which is now known as
the NHPA.

Horseshoe pitching even made its way to the White House when President Harry Truman built a horseshoe pit there. President George H.W. Bush later built a 40-foot horseshoe court on the South Lawn and sometimes played horseshoes with world leaders. In 1991, Queen Elizabeth II gifted Bush four silver horseshoes.

The sport brings together people from all walks of life, says Lampkin.

“We’ve had all types of people with all kinds of backgrounds,” she says. “We don’t discriminate. We take everybody. We [welcome you] with open arms.”

The sport is genuinely one where competition and camaraderie are equally valuable she adds.

“A lot of it is the lasting relationships. This is the largest family reunion you will ever see,” Lampkin says with a chuckle. “It’s going out and eating dinner [with your competitors] and talking smack back and forth—bragging and giving each other grief. It’s all in fun.”

“The competitiveness happens as soon as you step out on that floor. You’ll hear a pin drop, especially when the men compete. They get so intense and enthralled with the competition,” she says.

“Once you experience that World Tournament, the bug has bitten you. You always want to come back.”

The NHPA has about 15,000 members, with charters in nearly every U.S. state and Canada. Players can visit to find a charter in their area.