What are Horseshoes?

Horses Wear Them, But We Made a Game Out of Them

Children play a game of horseshoes, Sainte-Adèle, Quebec, 1954. Library and Archives Canada (LAC), flickr, creative commons

While Roman soldiers may have tossed a shoe or two back in ancient civilization, credit our Colonial forefathers and mothers with making the game of horseshoes an American tradition. Like bocce ball, badminton and croquet, it's a perfect low-tech activity for backyard get-togethers, barbecues, parties, or simply hanging out with friends or neighbors. You don't even need real horseshoes to play the game.

How to Set Up the Game

Stake out a patch of lawn (preferably one that won't mind a bit of wear and tear), sand, gravel, hard-packed dirt, or even a patio or deck. Official horseshoe courts measure 6 feet wide by 46 feet long, with a 3-foot by 4-foot pit (sand or gravel) at each end, but you can improvise to fit within the parameters of your outdoor space. Again, in official horseshoe games, 15-inch-high stakes are set in the center of each pit, spread 40 feet apart. Adjust within the confines of your yard, but make sure the stakes are tilted toward each other slightly. Pack sand or gravel around each stake for secure anchorage, and place a wooden stop (like a tray) around the pit to keep the sand or gravel in place. Measure a foul line about 3 feet in front of each stake. Other than the stakes, the only other equipment needed will be the horseshoes. Specially manufactured sets (available online or at sporting goods stores) are somewhat larger and heavier than the real thing -- better for tossing or flinging, depending on your style.

How to Play Horseshoes

The object of a game of horseshoes is to toss the "shoe" with an underhand pitch behind the foul line so that it rests encircling the stake (a ringer). Like baseball, the game is divided into innings. Each player pitches two shoes per inning. If you want to get serious about it, you can decide beforehand the number of innings (like 15 to 25) or points (40 to 50) you want to play.


  • The pitchers' feet must stay behind the foul line until the horseshoe is tossed.
  • Both players stay at the same end of the court until each has pitched his/her turn.
  • Taunting or teasing while a pitch is in progress is technically forbidden (unless you're with a crowd that likes to get rowdy).
  • Only one player scores in an inning, with only the closest shoe scoring.
  • A horseshoe can only score if it rests 6 inches or less from the stake.
  • The shoe closest to the stake scores one point.
  • Ringers each score three points, but if both players throw ringers, the throws cancel each other out.
  • If scores are the same, no points are earned -- nobody wins.