From serving as a farming tool, to a good luck charm, to a much-loved yard game, the humble horseshoe has had many uses over the years.
From as early as the 2nd century in Western Asia and Eastern Europe, metal plates or rings were used on horses to provide a protective layer to the hooves. Horse owners in Asia also used leather booties that surrounded the hooves.
Today, horseshoes are commonly used for domestic horses. The hoof grows continuously, sort of like a fingernail, and a horse's tendons, ligaments and movement can be negatively impacted by unbalanced hooves. While a wild horse's hooves are naturally worn down by running many miles over hard surfaces, a domestic horse requires regular hoof care because its hooves are generally only making contact with soft grass or dirt.
Horseshoes are applied by a farrier using small nails driven directly into the toughest section of the hoof. This process is not painful for the horse. When a horse is wearing shoes, it is called being shod. Shod horses must be re-shod every four to six weeks so the hooves can be trimmed. Unshod horses must be trimmed more frequently—every three to four weeks—to maintain the ideal shape of the hoof.
The horseshoe's use as a good luck charm also goes back centuries, when they were used to fend off goblins in northern Europe and the British Isles. Legend has it that these small creatures, similar to leprechauns, hid in the forest from new settlers to the region and caused them various misfortunes—everything from stopping chickens from laying eggs to kidnapping children.
To keep these goblins from their homes, the settlers hung metal horseshoes over their front doors. These emblems were believed to frighten the goblins on two levels: They reminded them of the settlers' metal weapons and also of the crescent of the Celtic moon god. The tradition of hanging a horseshoe over the front door to ward off bad luck remains popular today.
Another popular horseshoe use, the game of horseshoe pitching, can trace its origins to a similar pastime known as quoits, which began in ancient Greece. Peasants bent horseshoes into rings because they could not afford to purchase a real discus for the popular game of discus. Initially the game was won by throwing the heavy horseshoe the farthest distance, but eventually it evolved to a game of accuracy when people began driving a stake into the ground to use as a target. It's not known exactly when quoits inspired the game of horseshoes, but historians place the transformation sometime around a few centuries A.D.
The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA) governs the game of horseshoe pitching in the United States. To start the game, a horseshoe toss is used to determine who goes first. Each player throws both of their horseshoes at the opposite end, one at a time, known as an "inning." Typically, only one player can score per inning. Players score either by throwing a "ringer" so that the horseshoe encircles the stake or by throwing the horseshoe nearest to the stake. Games are generally played to 40 points.
The horseshoe's many uses endure today, whether you are using one to protect your horse's hooves, to fend off bad luck, or to entertain your family on a summer night in the backyard.