In the original game of horse shoes, players would take turns tossing a horse shoe at a stake in the ground, where a player wins by coming closest to the stake with their horse shoe. It is an old game, coming from a time when horses were a part of everyday life, so old horse shoes left over when horse are re-shod (horses get new shoes about every two months) would be a common place item of little value, and consequently the elements of the game (a stake and horse shoes) were commonly available. With time, the game has developed, both in terms of becoming somewhat more sophisticated and in terms of developing a number of different variations.


There are many different variations of the game. These include:

  • Players. Official competitions typically have either two players (individual competition) or two groups of players (team version), so each game will have one winner and one loser. Unofficial versions (e.g. children, family or friends) can have any number of players, of which there will be one winner, although players can decide beforehand if points will be used to determine second and third place. 
  • Stakes. The game is played with either one stake or two. Friendly games typically have one stake for simplicity. With official games there are often two stakes, with each of the two players (or two teams) tossing their horse shoes at their own stake. The two stake version is used in official games so that players can be judged purely on the accuracy of their toss, without the complication of an already thrown horse shoe being moved from position by a horse shoe which is subsequently thrown and hits it. However, in unofficial competitions, the movement of a thrown horse shoe out of position (either better or worse) by a horse shoe subsequently thrown by a competitor is often considered a source of added fun and considered part of the game.
  • Scoring. In simple games, the winner is the one whose horse shoe ends up closest to the stake. In more complex variations, points will be awarded depending on how close (e.g. 1 point for closest to the stake, 2 points if the horse shoe ends up leaning against the stake or goes completely around the stake).
  • Innings. The game can consist of a single round (each player throws once) or a number of rounds. In the case of a number of rounds, a round consists of each player throwing and after all players have had a turn, points are allocated and the horse shoes are removed. With multi-round games, the game has a fixed number of rounds (e.g. 40 rounds) or a continues for a fixed number of points (e.g. until at least one player gets at least 15 points).
  • Tosses per player per inning. In friendly games, it is common for each player to throw one shoe per inning. However, some versions of the game have each player throwing two shoes per inning.
  • Distance. The players must be a minimum distance from the stake when they throw. This is typically done by have a line drawn on the ground a certain distance from the stake (much like the line for a game of darts); in the USA the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA) uses a distance of 40 feet. With friendly games, the line can be drawn at any distance and with younger children in particular it is normal to use shorter distances to match their capability. With players of differing capacities, especially with children of varying ages, shorter distances tend to give the younger and less able players a more even chance to compete.
  • Horse Shoes. Although the game was traditionally played with used horse shoes, modern games tend to use custom made objects in the shape of a horse shoe. These are usually metal for official competitions but can also be found in plastic (especially beneficial for children, to minimize possible injuries should someone be accidentally hit). Modern versions also tend to be larger than an actual horse shoe, with competition versions being up to twice as large.
  • Name. The game has a number of different names, such as 'horse shoes' or 'horseshoe pitching'.

Horseshoe Pitching Rules & Regulations

For friendly games, one can use whatever set of rules one wants, although one needs to review the above variations with all the players before starting the game so that everyone is aware of and playing by the same rules. For official competitions, one needs to follow the rules of the governing body for whichever competition one is in. In the USA, the maim governing body for official competitions is the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA). They define all aspects of the game (e.g. horseshoe size and shape, throwing distance to stake) and provide a detailed set of game rules


A thrown horse shoe can be described as a 'ringer' (it encircles the stake), a 'leaner' (it leans against the stake), a 'dead shoe' (if it exceeds the maximum distance from the stake or if it was thrown in a non-regulatory way) or a 'live shoe' (if it have been correctly thrown by the player and ends up within an acceptable distance from the stake).

The playing area (the stake, the line behind which the players must stand, and the area in between) is referred to as the 'pitch'.

The game of 'horse shoes' is also referred to as 'horseshoe pitching'.

If a player gets two 'ringers' and his opponent gets only one 'ringer', then the player with two 'ringers' is said to have a 'dead ringer' (because his first ringer cancels out the opponents only ringer, so they are considered 'dead' but he has one ringer left over). From this, the term 'dead ringer' is used  to describe anyone who is exceptionally good at their sport (for any competitive sport, from boxing to golf) and considered the favorite to win.


The following photos (courtesy of wikipedia) show: an example of official game horse shoes, a basic pitch, a dedicated competition play pitch.

Game Horse Shoe   Basic Horse Shoe Pitch   Horse shoe pitch 2


For related articles, click on Horseshoe Information, or on any of the following: