The history of horseshoe pitching can be traced back to Roman soldiers. During their idle hours, the soldiers occupied themselves with games that consisted of tossing metal rings over stakes pounded into the ground. Whether these first metal rings were actually horseshoes is a matter of some debate.
Which Game First—Horseshoes
There’s no doubt that the games of horseshoes and quoits are closely related. A quoit is a metal disk with a hole in the middle that may at one time have been a weapon. A game of quoits consists of attempting to throw the disk over a hob or pin embedded in soft clay. Some historians speculate that Roman officers played quoits while their underlings improvised by pitching horseshoes. Others believe it happened the other way around. Soldiers began by pitching horseshoes and someone began forming the shoes into rings.
Either way, we know that quoits was being played in England in the 14th Century, much to the chagrin of the English rulers who felt the games distracted men from military training, particularly archery. The game was outlawed in 1388. By the 16th century, English peasants were playing both horseshoes and quoits and would later export both games to North America.
Like the Roman soldiers, North American soldiers found horseshoes to be good wartime recreation. During the Revolutionary war, US soldiers evidently played horseshoes causing the Duke of Wellington to write, “the war was won by the pitchers of horse hardware.” Union soldiers pitched mule shoes in Civil War camps.
From the Military Camp
to the Back Yard
Soldiers took the game home with them after the wars and horseshoe courts sprang up in communities across the US and Canada. The game became a family sport that was enjoyed by men, women, boys and girls. There is some evidence that the first horseshoe club was founded in Pennsylvania in 1899. The first “world championship” horseshoe tournament took place in Bronson, Kansas at a 1909 horse show.
The rules of this first tournament called for two-inch tall stakes to be placed 38 feet apart. Ringers were worth five points and leaners counted three. Shoes that were close to the stake were worth one point. Games were played to 21 points. Thirty-four men entered the tournament and the winner, Frank Jackson, was appropriately awarded a belt with a horseshoe buckle. Jackson would go on to win six more world championships. He still ranks fourth on the all-time horseshoe world championship list.