For most of us, horseshoe pitching seems like just a quiet way to while away a lazy summer afternoon. There are others, though, who take it much more seriously, recognizing it as a sport that has roots stretching back over centuries.
About 2,000 years ago, discus throwing was all the rage in ancient Greece. This consisted of throwing a circular metal plate, with a leather strap attached, as far as one was able. Of course, not everybody could afford this equipment, so the camp followers of the Grecian armies made do with what they had on hand — namely, horseshoes.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, horseshoe pitching took off tremendously in the American colonies. As a matter of fact, the Duke of Wellington commented, after the end of the Revolutionary War, that “the war was won by pitchers of horse hardware.”
It fell to the British, however, to formalize the rules of the game, which they did in 1869. It wasn’t until 1910 that the first world championship horseshoe tournament was held in Bronson, Kan., where one Frank Jackson took the prize.
In 1957, citizens of Keene, Swanzey, Richmond, Westmoreland and Brattleboro got together to discuss the formation of the Keene Horseshoe Club. Although only 29 people attended that first meeting at Keene City Hall, it was the beginning of a popular institution that thrives to this day.
Local resident Deb Pickering has a particular fondness for the sport, having played in several tournaments over the years. Although she no longer plays competitively, she still swings a mean horseshoe, and does so when the situation demands.
“I haven’t played in the leagues since 1995, but I still mess around and play reunions and things like that,” she said. “I can still pitch about six out of 10 ringers right now without even practicing. At the top of my game, I could play eight out of ten.”
Pickering fell in love with horseshoe pitching at an early age, as the family into which she was adopted was already heavily involved in the sport.
“I was adopted in 1965, when I was nine years old,” she said. “My adoptive family was active in putting together the Keene horseshoe courts, so my father was really instrumental in the process.
“I recall that one of my brothers was playing at the time, and I would tag along and watch. I was so short that the only way I could see what was going on was to look through the slats in the bleachers and watch them play.”
Of course, just being an observer can get pretty old after a while, and it wasn’t long before Pickering became actively involved in playing herself.
“When I was about 10 or 11, I decided that I really wanted to play,” she said. “My mother had horseshoe courts at the house and taught me how to pitch something called a turn and a quarter. That means the horseshoe will spin one and a quarter times, and the open end will land on the stake.
Most women throw a flip, which means it goes end over end. So, I guess what I was doing was pretty unusual.”
Although her beginnings in the sport were rocky, Pickering soon found her feet, and excelled as time went on.
“My first two tournaments were horrible,” she said. “I pitched something like five percent, which is barely getting a ringer at all. Then, at 12 years old, I ended up coming in third in the state and third in New England, where I was pitching about 50 percent.
“Now, this doesn’t mean you’re pitching just that one game — it’s more like playing seven games. So, we’re talking about doing that for a really long period of time.
“In those days, there was a 50-point limit. When you’re playing competitively, not everything counts. For instance, if I threw two ringers and my opponent played two ringers, nobody would score.
“The better I became at this, the longer these games would take, because I was playing people of my caliber. They typically put you in a class with people who pitch as well as you can.”
Naturally, adolescence got in the way of horseshoe pitching, and Pickering found herself more interested in boys, dropping out of the sport altogether for a while.
“In 1977, I decided spontaneously that I was going to pitch in the New Hampshire State Horseshoe Championship, while I was heavily pregnant,” she said. “I won that match, and then went on to the New England Tournament the next year, where I beat the world champion.”
Pickering said she played steadily throughout the 1980s, pitching about 80 percent with some regularity.
“I feel really blessed to be able to do this,” she said. “Because of my accomplishments, I was invited to play in Japan, where I competed against President H.W. Bush.
“Horseshoe pitching has given me a lot of confidence, and opened doors for me to do a lot of other things.”
The Keene Horseshoe Club is at Wheelock Park, 101 Park Avenue in Keene and can be reached at 358-6505 or online at keenehorseshoeclub.org.