Shoeing horses has been around at least as far back as 200 B.C.E. in Greece. And it probably wasn't long after that frustrated discus throwers figured out it would be fun to toss horseshoes at a stake in the ground and see who could score the most ringers [source: Boga].
The game's popularity has continued across the centuries; it was played by Benjamin Franklin and Union troops during the American Civil War. Today, it is enjoyed by 15 million Americans, ranging from serious league competitors to casual weekend players, according to the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA), the sport's U.S. governing body.
There are plenty of reasons why horseshoes is an enduring, appealing pastime. It's a great excuse to get outdoors and enjoy the sunshine, and it's a game of skill rather than physical power or speed, so you don't have to be a gifted athlete to try it. The basic concept of the game is easy to grasp (though if you choose to become a serious tournament competitor, there are more complex rules).
Best yet, if you have a decent-sized, reasonably level backyard, you can easily build your own horseshoe pit (sometimes called a court) more easily and cheaply than you could install a putting green or an outdoor basketball court. In this article, we'll teach you what you need to know to build your own personal horseshoe pit, from picking the right location to what materials to use.
Laying Out Your Court
One of the great things about building your own horseshoe pit is that you can create a playing field that matches your level of enthusiasm, interest or skill. If you're just a casual player who is looking for a way to pass the time while Uncle Morty finishes grilling the steaks, you can simply shove two sticks in the ground and call it a court. But if you're taking the time to read an article about how to build horseshoe pits, chances are that you're a bit more serious about the sport, or else just like to do things right. In that case, you'll want to lay out a pit to the specifications of the U.S. Horseshoe Pitchers Association for competitive play. "Mediocre conditions favor weaker players," writes expert Steven Boga in his book "Horseshoes." "Quality courts reward merit and intensify competition."
In picking out a spot for your horseshoe pit, look for a fairly level space that's about 10 feet (3 meters) wide and 50 feet (15 meters) long, and is free of obstructions such as trees, clotheslines and electrical wires. Ideally, it should run north to south, so that the players won't get the sun in their eyes [source: Boga].
If you just need a minimalistic horseshoe pit that's good for practicing, all you need to do is drive a pair of 3-foot-long (1-meter-long) iron or steel stakes into the ground about 40 feet (12 meters) apart from each other, leaving about 14 to 15 inches (35 to 38 centimeters) of the stakes above ground. Players will be throwing from the middle in either direction, so tilt the stakes slightly toward you. Then just dig up the soil a little around each stake, and you're ready to go [sources: Boga, NHPA].
If you want a real regulation court, you'll need to get some materials and do a more elaborate construction job. We'll explain how in the next section.
Materials for Your Horseshoe Pit
If you're going to build a serious horseshoe court with the regulation two pits, you need the right materials. The good news is that you can find most everything you will need at your local home improvement supply store. Here's your list:
- Two 30-inch-long (76 centimeter), 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) thick iron or steel stakes.
- Wooden or steel plates with a hole in the center, or small buckets that you can fill with cement, to serve as bases for the spikes [source: Boga].
- Horseshoe clay. If you're a casual thrower, you can get by with ordinary or churned-up soil. But for serious competition, you'll want special horseshoe pit clay, which makes the shoes stop precisely where they land. Expect to spend $300 or so for 2 cubic yards, which is enough for two pits [source: Sheffeld Pottery].
- 28 15-by-15-inch (38-by-38-centimeter) flagstones to frame the court and create walkways and a pitching box for the players [source: NHPA]. You can economize by using cheap retaining wall blocks or wooden boards.
- Backstops for the horseshoe pits, so that errant tosses don't go all over the place. You need a barrier that's about 12 inches (30 centimeters) high and 3 feet (1 meter) wide. For best results, get a pair of standard 4-by-4-inch-thick (10-by-10-centimeter) deck posts that are at least 2 feet (61 centimeters) long and four 2-by-8-inch (5-by-20-centimeter), 3-foot long boards [source: M&M Horseshoe Company].
- Several 3-inch (7.6 centimeter) wood screws.
- A cloth or digital tape measure and paint or chalk, so you can lay out the court.
- Tools: A shovel, a sledgehammer, and an electric screwdriver.
Building Your Horseshoe Pit
The first thing that you need to do is mark off the right dimensions for the court with a pit at each end. The complete playing area should be 48 feet (14.6 meters) long and 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide. At each end, there's a 6-by-6-foot box that contains both the area where the players pitch and the pits themselves, each of which should be 3 feet by 4 feet (1 by 1.2 meters) in area [sources: NHPA, SportsKnowHow.com]. Use paint or chalk to mark where everything goes.
Next, it's time to dig the pit and set up the stakes. The pit doesn't have to be too deep — 8 inches (20 centimeters) or so is great. Dig out a hole in the center that's roughly another foot (30 centimeters) or so. Position the stake so that it's sticking precisely 14 inches (26 centimeters) out of the ground, and angled at a 3-inch (7.6-centimeter) slant from where it comes out of the ground. If you're using the bucket as a base, then pour the cement around it, and let it harden a little [sources: Boga, NHPA ]. Then shovel the clay into the pit, a couple of inches at a time, and pack it in [sources: Beam Clay].
Now, dig out the areas around the pits and along the edges of the court, and lay the flagstones. You don't need to dig very deep, just enough so that the stones are solidly seated in the ground.
Now it's time to build the backstop. Use the sledgehammer to pound the deck posts into the ground. Then use your electric screwdriver and the wood screws to attach the boards to the posts. Make sure it's all nice and sturdy [source: M&M Horseshoe Company].
When that's finished, you need to get some NHPA regulation horseshoes, which you can buy from a variety of Web-based dealers or sporting goods stores. Horseshoes designed for horses won't work as they're not uniform in size. Look for ones weighing 2.5 pounds (1 kilogram) with openings no greater than 3.5 inches (9 centimeters) [source: NHPA].
Author's Note: How to Build a Backyard Horseshoe Pit
I've only pitched horseshoes a few times, and those were strictly casual games in someone's backyard during a cookout, on a non-regulation court where the competitors lubricated themselves with a few beers beforehand. So I was surprised to learn that horseshoe pitching, at its highest level, is a serious sport. The greatest horseshoe pitcher of all time, Alan Francis, is capable of getting a ringer 90 percent of the time—which is three times the success rate of an all-star caliber baseball hitter at the plate.
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