How to Play Horseshoes: Rules and Complete Gameplay Instructions

With all its talk of “ringers” and multiple ways of scoring points, the basic horseshoe game rules can seem more than a little complicated.

Learn the basics, however, and you’ll soon discover what great fun this family-friendly game of skill can be as you and your opponent duke it out to score the most points en route to victory.

In today’s guide, we not only talk you through horseshoes’ complex point-scoring system but outline everything you need to know to get your game underway.

What is Horseshoes?

Horseshoes Game Info image

A twist on the classic British game of Quoits (see Quoits rules), horseshoes first made its way over to the United States in the early part of the 20th century and has only gone on to grow in popularity ever since.

In fact, it’s so widely-played that today it boasts competitive tournaments around the globe and even influenced the creation of more modern past times like Fricket.

At its heart, horseshoes is a basic throwing game in which the aim is to get your pitching shoe around or close to a target, though given the unique shape of horseshoes and the style of play it can be a tough game to really get good at.

Number of players required: 2 – 4. 2 people can play a straight 1-on-1 game. 4 players can play a game of doubles with 2 teams of 2. 

Who can play: All ages, though younger children are likely to need a smaller court and lighter horseshoes.

Difficulty: Medium. Though it’s easy to learn the basics, horseshoes is a difficult game to master.

Main objective: Be the first player or team of players to reach a pre-agreed number of points (usually 15 or 21) by throwing your horseshoes directly onto the stake or as close to it as possible.

Why we love it: A game of pure skill if ever there was one, it may only take a few minutes to learn how to play horseshoes, but getting those top scores takes a lot of practice. If you ask us, that’s all part of its appeal, providing just the right level of challenging gameplay while still remaining great fun. 

How to Play Horseshoes: What You’ll Need 

Like Four Square, horseshoes is one of those great outdoor games that requires very little equipment.

To get started, all you need is two stakes and four horseshoes. These days, most of the best-selling horseshoe sets use horseshoe-shaped bars rather than actual horseshoes, though there’s no reason why you can’t use the real thing.

If you are buying a set, then it’s worth keeping in mind who you’ll be playing with.

For example, while a traditional championship horseshoe set with the larger, solid-steel pitching shoes will be perfect for a grown-ups-only gathering, those shoes may be a little heavy -not to mention dangerous- for younger children.

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On the flip side, a plastic, child-friendly horseshoe set will be great for keeping the kids entertained during the summer, but is unlikely to present much of a challenge when you have your buddies over for game night.

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How to Set Up Your Game of Horseshoes 

How to setup game of Horseshoe image

Horseshoes is a game best played on a soft, outdoor surface such as grass or sand. That way, all you have to do is push the two stakes into the ground and you’re good to go.

Official horseshoe game rules state that the stakes should be positioned in a straight line, 40 feet apart. However, if you don’t have the space, or if you’re playing with children, then there’s no reason why you can’t bring them closer together for casual gameplay.

RELATED: Check out Bocce Ball rules for a similar outdoor throwing game.

In individual games, each player gets two pitching shoes. If you’re playing doubles, all players will get one shoe each. 

A simple coin toss can determine which player or team goes first. Alternatively, each player could pitch one shoe each at the same stake, with whoever gets the closest being able to choose whether they go first or second.

Horseshoe Game Rules 

Horseshoe game play setup

To begin the game, players go to the opposite ends of the horseshoe court. The player who goes first will throw both of their horseshoes, one after the other, towards the stake at the opposite end of the court.

The aim is to get the shoe to surround the stake and score what’s known as a “ringer.” Failing that, players can aim to get their shoe as close to the stake as possible. If no ringers are scored in a round, then the player who gets the closest to the stake gets the point. 

Horseshoes Point Scoring Rules

Although the actual gameplay is as simple as it gets, horseshoes’ rules on point-scoring can get a little complicated.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • If a player scores a ringer, they earn 3 points.
  • If both players score a ringer, those ringers cancel each other out. In this scenario, the player who got their horseshoe closest to the stake scores one point.
  • If both players score two ringers each, they cancel each other out. No points are awarded for that round.
  • If one player scores two ringers and their opponent only scores one ringer, the player with two ringers gets the three points.
  • If a player scores a single ringer and also gets their remaining horseshoe closer to the stake than both of their opponents’ horseshoes, they receive an additional point. This means they get a total of four points for that round.
  • If a player scores two ringers and their opponent doesn’t score any, then the player with two ringers doubles their points, meaning they get a total of 6 points for that round.

The game continues until one player reaches a pre-agreed number of points. This is usually 15 or 21, though in a casual game you can agree on whatever number you prefer. 

The player who reaches that score first wins the game.

Frequently Asked Questions About Horseshoes 

What Happens if a Game of Horseshoes Ends in a Draw?

In horseshoe games with a fixed number of rounds, a game that ends with both players on the same number of points simply goes into sudden death.

An extra round is played with the winner of that round winning the game. If that first additional round also ends in a tie then more rounds are played until there’s one clear winner.

Do You Have to Win by 2 Points in Horseshoes?

Not necessarily. While there are many games (such as ‘Around the Clock’ Darts or certain types of card games) that do require a player to win by a clear margin of at least two points, horseshoes isn’t one of them. 

If you’re playing to 21 points, it’s perfectly OK for one player to reach 21 and the other to reach 20. The player on 21 points will still win the game.

That said, there’s no reason why you couldn’t introduce this rule to create a more challenging alternative to the traditional rules.

Speaking of which:

Texas Horseshoes: A Fun Alternative to Traditional Horseshoes

If you’re finding the traditional horseshoe game rules just a little too tricky to master, the variation known as Texas Horseshoes may prove more to your liking.

The general scoring is the same as traditional horseshoes except instead of shoes and stakes, players aim to throw washer-like rings into cups placed on the ground. It’s for this reason that you’ll often find this one sold as “the washer-toss game.

This makes it a great alternative for anyone who likes the idea of a throwing game but isn’t so keen with the high level of skill involved to really get good at the traditional game of horseshoes.

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