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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Horseshoes is a game played outdoors by two people or teams throwing four horseshoes at two stakes in the ground 40 feet apart. Like many modern games, its origins can be traced back thousands of years.

One of the sports in the ancient Olympic Games was discus throwing, a sport that dates to at least 708 BCE. Later, when players couldn’t afford or find a discus to practise with, they used horseshoes. These devices had been attached to horses’ hoofs since the second century BCE. It is thought that soldiers in both the Greek and Roman armies drove a stake in the ground and threw discarded horseshoes at it in their spare time.

Closely related to the game of horseshoes is quoits. Which game was first is unknown. Quoits was played with a metal disk that had a hole in the middle and may have been primarily used as a weapon. Some historians believe that Roman officers threw quoits at a stake, while their subordinates improvised by using old horseshoes. Other researchers think that soldiers of various ranks pitched horseshoes and someone came up with the idea of making them into a ring.

In any case, both games were probably played on and off over the centuries and horseshoes and quoits used interchangeably depending on what were available. We know that quoits was played in 14th century England before being banned by authorities in 1388 as it distracted soldiers from archery practice. English peasants were playing both games in the 16th century and later took them to North America. In the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), US soldiers played horseshoes to such an extent that England’s Duke of Wellington later wrote that “the war was won by pitchers of horse hardware.” During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Union soldiers threw mule shoes.

The first attempt to standardize the rules took place in England in 1869. The stakes were set 57 feet apart and the maximum diameter of the quoit was eight inches. For non-ringers, measurements for points were based on the part of the quoit nearest the stake. These rules were also used in the US. There were no formal competitions or records, although soldiers returning from wars were keen horseshoe players and got their communities interested. Horseshoe pitching courts were constructed in cities, towns and farming areas across the US and Canada. It became a popular game for the whole family, although differences in rules arose locally. A horseshoe club may have been formed in Pennsylvania in 1899.

The first horseshoe pitching world championship was held in Bronson, Kansas in 1910. The stakes were just two inches tall and set 38 feet apart. Ringers scored five points, leaners three, and close shots one. A total of 21 points were needed to win a game. Frank Johnson won the tournament from 34 contestants. He was able to throw a ringer and then land his second horseshoe on top time and again, preventing his opponent scoring a ringer. He went on to win seven world championships. Stakes were increased to six inches in 1911. But there were still no rules for horseshoe weight, size or shape. A competitor in a 1911 tournament used a shoe with one side four inches longer than the other.

The game’s first governing body in the US was the Grand League of the American Horseshoe Pitchers Association set up in Kansas City in 1914. Some standard rules were laid down. Stakes became eight inches tall, and shoes were to weigh between two pounds and two pounds two ounces. Scoring stayed the same as did the distance between stakes. Another ruling body, the National League of Horseshoe and Quoit Pitchers was formed in Florida in 1919. The two organizations merged to create the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America (NHPA) in 1925.

Meanwhile, further rule changes were made. In 1919, the distance between stakes was altered to 40 feet, the same as that used today, and a forward lean of one inch. Fifty points won a game. In 1920, stake height was raised to 10 inches and ringers to count as three points. The first world championship for women was held in that year. The forward lean of the stakes was increased to three inches in 1923. During this decade the sport grew in popularity, with the sports pages carrying regular stories. World championships were held every summer and winter. Ohio sportswriter Doc Kerr called it barnyard golf as it was so popular in rural areas. The name stuck for over a decade.

Around 1940 the stake was increased to 12 inches, and then to 14-15 inches in 1950. The last major rule change was in 1982 requiring a player to score 40 points to win a game rather than 50 points. A ringer is still worth three points while a leaner or a shoe within six inches of the stake is worth one point. Stakes remain 40 feet apart in men’s competitions and 30 feet for women’s events. Shoes can weigh up to two pounds 10 ounces.

Today the game is most popular in the US and Canada where an estimated 15 million people play tournaments, leagues, socially, and in backyards. The NHPA has 15,000 members with 6,200 playing in leagues, including handicap competitions. A recent innovation is indoor courts, which have been growing in number. Championships now have up to seven divisions, including men, women, boys, girls, as well as senior men, senior women, and elders over 70 years of age.