Volume X, No. 3, Spring 1983



by Allen Gage

Photographs by Allen Gage and Deidra Morgan

Horseshoe pitching. To the older generation these two words bring back memories of childhood--men playing in a vacant lot by a general store, telling tall tales and chewing tobacco. The clang of the horseshoes as they banged against the peg provided the perfect rhythm for the stories the men told.

To the younger generation these two words may bring up pictures of people deep in the Ozark hills and valleys, throwing at any metal stake they could find.

Both these pictures are true, but they don't tell the whole story. The game is much more involved than this. Some people take the game so seriously they pitch every chance they get regardless of the time or the weather. Some have even set up indoor pitching areas.

Most people who pitch now started when they were young. In vacant lots around the general store, at church gatherings, community picnics or any place men would gather, there used to be a couple of pegs driven in the ground to make a makeshift court. Boys would watch the men and naturally imitate them.

Lloyd Stowe said, "I started pitching when I was a little kid. As far as I can remember we pitched horseshoes. First we'd have to find some shoes that somebody had lost off their horses. An old blacksmith's shop back then was a good place to get some horseshoes. Of course, they wasn't balanced, and none of them weighed the same, and you never knew where they were going when you threw them. We pitched every chance we got. We used to come in from work and after supper we'd turn on the yard light and pitch horseshoes till midnight or maybe three o'clock in the morning. On every Sunday afternoon there was a horseshoe game somewhere."

Charlie Morgan also had similar experiences. "I've been pitching for about sixty-three years. I started throwing when I was three years old. Fred Ertz lived adjoining farms to us then, and he like to pitch horseshoes and my dad was a good horseshoe pitcher. Tom Baur, John Harrill, and some more, I've forgotten them, would pitch horseshoes, and I was always grabbing their horseshoes. One day Fred said, 'I'll bring you a horseshoe the next time I come.' The next time he came he brought me a shoe off of a pony. That shoe got me a lot of spankings. Pitching to their peg then running in there to get it, I'd be right in the way."

Lester Pannell said, "Years ago there was a little horseshoe pitching around church gatherings and that kind of thing. I got interested in it and wanted to pitch some horseshoes. Since I lived on a farm where we had horses, I went out and got what we had and played around with those a lot. But I'd never seen a game anywhere unless the family was there and there was just a bunch of kids messing around."

At some country schools the boys pitched horseshoes at recess. "We played all the time," Charlie said, "even more than playing ball. Usually just the boys pitched. The teachers would just let us have one set of pegs. Sometimes we'd have four or five couples, and they'd have so many shoes that the ground would just be covered up with shoes so that the last man's shoe would hit them and just bounce away. I was pretty good. Jacob Honey was the only boy in school that I ever was afraid of beating me. Now that ole Jacob could beat me. He never would get a shoe over five foot off the ground and they'd light about four foot from that peg and just slide up there." There is not really much expense in the equipment needed for this game--basically two stakes and four horseshoes.

In the casual back yard variety this equipment is often improvised. Any length of stake will work. Lowell Morgan has even used crowbars. "Just throw the bar in the ground and start pitching at it," he said.


Orie Watson releases his horseshoe in the hope of hearing someone say, "It's a ringer!"

However, most people prefer to use standard stakes. The usual is one inch galvanized steel cut in forty-two inch lengths driven two feet into the ground with fourteen inches above the ground. In regulation horseshoe pitching and in the casual game the stakes should be placed forty feet apart and be slightly angled toward each other. The angle makes the shoes stay on better.

To put stakes in the ground for permanent use, you will need a metal stake two feet in length and a twelve inch square of oak. Drill a hole in the center of the wood the size of the stake. Drive the stake into the hole then bury the block in the ground with eighteen inches of stake remaining above the ground.

A special court to play on is not necessary. Driving stakes in the lawn can provide a cout for a good time. More interested players often built pits filled with sand or moist clay around the stake. For tournament use or very serious players will build a regulation court. The target area around the stake is of moist clay prepared so that the shoes will not bounce or roll.The game requires four shoes. Before regulation pitching horseshoes were possible for most people, some men would use the shoes right off the horse. J.M. (Bunt) Cumbea said, "When I used to play horseshoes, we just went out and took the horseshoes right off of the horse. Then when we got through playing, we put them back on.."


Now, of course, shoes are made specifically for horseshoe pitching but still resemble a real horseshoe. These horseshoes cannot exceed two and one-half pounds in weight. The opening between the heels cannot be more than three and one half inches, and the overall length cannot exceed seven and one half inches.

As in any sport, it takes practice to be able to throw a horseshoe expertly. Body movement and arm action all play an important part.

There are many ways to throw a horseshoe. Most people throw it by grasping it in their hand with the open end away from them. To throw in this manner, put your index finger on the outside edge of the horseshoe with the remaining three fingers below the horseshoe with the thumb resting on top. If you throw right handed, when you release the horseshoe, flick your wrist to the right to make the shoe achieve the proper turn. It will take much practice to be able to throw the horseshoe so that it will turn open each time.

A horseshoe thrown like this will make one complete turn to be open when it reaches the stake. Where you hold the horseshoe determines how much it turns. Some grasp the shoe at the toe of the horseshoe with their entire hand so that the open end faces the opposing stake. When the player throws the horseshoe, it will turn end over end before coming to the stake open.


No matter which way the player holds the horseshoe, most follow the same body movements. To throw it stand beside the peg with feet comfortably side by side. Step forward with the right foot as you swing your right hand back. As your weight rests on the right foot bring your arm forward and release the shoe (Ill.1).

Ill. 1--Lloyd Stowe shows the correct form for pitching right-handed.

The basic rules and requirements for this game are quite simple. Players toss horseshoes at a target in the form of an iron stake (Ill. 2). The object of the game is to toss the horseshoe so that it comes to rest encircling the stake (usually 3 points), or if it fails to encircle the stake, to get it to come as close to the stake as possible (1 point closest shoe). But to qualify for a point, the shoe must be no more than a horseshoe's width from the stake. To determine if it is a counter, measure with another shoe. Hold the shoe heel end down with one edge touching the stake. If the other heel end touches the shoe, it is within point range. (Ill. 3). A casual game consists of enough frames, or turns, for one player or one team to get 21 points. 50 points is used for tournament games.

Ill. 2--Shoes often stick in soft ground.

Ill. 3--Measuring a shoe for the point.

There are two different ways to play horseshoes. Games may be played as singles (the walking game with two players as opponents) or the more common doubles (the partners' game with four players).


In the singles game both players begin at the same stake. The two players toss a coin to determine who pitches first. One player throws his two shoes to the opposite stake. Then the other player throws both of his shoes. They then walk to the stake, figure the score and pitch back to the other stake.

The doubles game has two opponents stationed at one stake with their partners at the opposite stake. One pair of partners compete as a unit against the other. No walking between the two stakes is necessary in this game. The points scored by one player and his partner at the opposite stake are added together as the game progresses against the total points of the other pair of partners.

Charlie Morgan (left) pitches his shoe while Orie Watson watches. Afterwards, Orie kids him about his ringer. He boasts, "There's no use you throwing a ringer. I'll just cap it."

In a casual game the rules about no talking and the fact that you cannot make any distracting noises or movements are generally ignored. Most people play the game so they can joke with the other players. It is not uncommon to hear a comment such as, "You got a ringer. It's twelve to six. You old lucky devil you."

In serious playing and in tournaments there have to be some rules and regulations. Some of the rules which are generally followed in tournaments are below:

A player must pitch each shoe from inside the foul line of the pitcher's box and at least eighteen inches from the stake. If a part of a player's foot extends over the foul line before he pitches the shoe, the shoe thrown is a foul and does not count in the scoring. The player who is not pitching must stand at the back of the pitcher's box while his opponent is delivering his shoe and must not talk or make any distracting noises or movements. If a player does not obey this rule, he loses the value of both shoes pitched in that frame.

In a single's game a player can't walk to the opposite end until both players have pitched their shoes.

A shoe that hits the ground outside the pitcher's box or on the hard surface within scoring distance of the stake does not count in the scoring.


Shoes must not be moved until the score is decided and should not be touched except in the process of measuring to determine the score. Players who do not obey this rule lose the value of the shoes they pitched that frame.

Scoring rules vary from area to area and from person to person but the following is generally accepted:

A frame in a single's game consists of both players pitching both shoes at the opposite stake. In doubles a frame is considered when a member of one team and a member of the opposing team throw both of their shoes.

A ringer is a shoe which encircles the stake in a way so that a straight edge can be laid across the open end of the shoe without touching the stake.

A shoe which lands leaning against the stake has the same value as one touching the stake but lying on the ground. Some of the older people who pitch horseshoes call this a leaner and count it as three points.

A player can cancel out his opponent's ringer with a ringer of his own. He can cancel out two of his opponent's ringers by throwing two ringers. This canceling is known as two dead and four dead. If a player throws only one ringer when his opponent has two ringers, he cancels out only one ringer.

Shoes must land within six inches of the stake to count in the scoring. This distance may be increased for beginners.

Shoes of opposing players that land an equal distance from the stake are regarded as ties and cancel each other out. The next closest shoe, providing it is within six inches of the stake counts as one point.

Most players today count a ringer 3 points and closest shoe as one. Old-timers, however, often counted a ringer as 5 points, a leaner, a shoe which leans against the stake, as three, and the closest shoe as one.

The player who scores in a frame pitches first in the next frame. If no points are scored in a frame the person who threw the last in the frame throws first in the next frame.

To be around horseshoe pitchers for any amount of time and not hear some horseshoe pitching stories is unusual. The day we chose to pitch horseshoes proved that people do truly pitch any time they get a chance. It was a cold overcast day in February. We watched as Lowell Morgan marked off the distance for the stakes. While the other men waited, Charlie Morgan recounted the time he and his brother, Clifford, stopped to get gas while traveling in Wyoming. Though from Missouri, he was temporarily living in Indiana. At that time the Indiana license plates that they had on their truck were the same colors as Missouri plates.

The old man who ran the gas station glanced at the licenses and said, "I never seen the day when I couldn't take anybody for a partner and beat a Missourian pitching horseshoes." Charlie and Clifford both looked at each other and grinned because they had been pitching horseshoes and had got very good. They decided to pitch the old man a game.

They gave to the old man for his partner, a young man called D.W., whom they had picked up on the way. They played three games and beat the old man and D.W. Clifford laughed, looked at the old man and said, "Hey, Grandpa, clean them license plates off and look at them." The old man looked carefully at the plate, and realizing they weren't Missouri plates, said, "I knew durn well a Missourian couldn't beat me pitching horseshoes!"

After everyone stopped laughing, the game got started with Charlie and Bunt Cumbea against Lowell and Orie Watson.

Lowell kidded his father about being an old man and told him to go first. Charlie replied, "I'm not so old but what I can't take you down and whip you!"

Charlie tossed his first shoe. As it headed for the stake, he yelled, "There's a good one." Just as he said the last word, the shoe hit the stake, circled around it three or four times and came to rest at the bottom of the stake for a ringer. Charlie pitched his next shoe but it fell far short of the stake. He laughed and said, "My foot slipped!"

Lowell looked at him with amazement, "It probably slipped when you throwed that first one."


Orie, who was at the same stake as Charlie, picked up his shoes. He looked at Charlie, grinned and said, "I'd like to put a ringer on top of yours." Orie took his time, tossed his shoe and got a ringer. Charlie looked at him and said, "Just for that you're not going fox hunting with me anymore."

Orie threw his next shoe and got another ringer. These men liked the older method of scoring--five points for ringer, three points for leaner and one point for closest shoe. The score was Orie and Lowell five points, Charlie and Bunt zero.

Lowell and Bunt picked up their horseshoes and since Orie got the points, his partner Lowell pitched first. Lowell threw his shoe which flipped end over end and came to rest around the peg. Lowell's next shoe fell six inches from the peg. When Bunt started to pitch, his horseshoe, hit his leg as he released it causing the shoe to roll toward the stake. After we all finished razing him about it, I told the story that my Uncle Lloyd Stowe told me about a man who rolled his shoes to the stake on purpose. "The funniest experience I ever had was with a guy who lived out here in this community," Lloyd had said. "I never saw anyone pitch a shoe like this guy. He was a good sport and lots of fun, but he had a unique way of pitching horseshoes. He didn't pitch it level at all. He more or less rolled it. He'd run along and talk to the shoe as it went to the staub and you'd be surprised at what he'd call that shoe sometimes."

After Bunt finished calling his shoe a few names, he pitched his second shoe which hit Lowell's shoe lying on the ground. But when Bunt's horseshoe hit Lowell' s, it made Lowell' s bounce up against the stake for a three point leaner for Lowell.

"Hey, whose side are you on?" Charlie asked Bunt.

"I never saw anything like that," Orie said.

Charlie pitched first in the next frame. Both shoes fell short of the peg. Orie laughed at Charlie, "If I couldn't pitch any better than that, I'd quit." Orie's first shoe fell within six inches of the stake for a point and his second shoe was a leaner. The score, Lowell and Orie 12, Charlie and Bunt zero.

In the next frame since Orie got the points his partner Lowell pitched first. Lowell threw his shoe in his characteristic way, flipping it end over end. It came to rest around the peg. Charlie yelled across the distance of the stakes, "Another ringer might win the game for you."

Right on cue, Lowell threw another ringer. "The game's over--unless you can throw a ringer to cap mine," he boasted to Bunt. Bunt threw his first but it was not a ringer. His second shoe also fell short of the peg Lowell
 shouted, "The game's over!"

"Well, you won't win another game," Charlie said. "Bunt and I are just now getting warmed up. Come on, let's pitch some more."

Bunt Cumbea pitches his first shoe. Lowell Morgan looks on and jokes, "If you cap my two ringers, I'll take that horseshoe and ring your neck for five points."


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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