The official rules of horseshoes are published by the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America (NHPA). The rules include the layout for permanent ground-level courts, covered and indoor courts and temporary and raised courts. It's a good idea to know the official rules, but you're not bound to follow them in a friendly game.
The stakes are placed 40 feet apart. They must be one inch in diameter and have a three-inch lean toward each other. The stakes are located in the center of a pit that is a minimum of 31 x 46 inches and a maximum of 36 x 72 inches, with a pitching platform on either side. Stakes should be between 14 and 15 inches above the surface of the pit, though they can be 18 to 19 inches above the surface if a raised court is used.
The pit is filled with sand, dirt, gravel or a similar substance. The substance in the pit should be level and kept in soft condition to keep horseshoes from bouncing or moving around. Both contestants must agree to any pit repairs. If sand is used in a pit, the judges may stop play to allow the pits to be flattened out every few innings.
Horseshoes are manufactured specifically for the game. In official games, the shoes have a certain weight and certain measurements. Shoes cannot be altered in sanctioned play. Pitching distances are also set. There are separate distances for juniors, men, women and the elderly, but all classes must observe 27-foot foul lines.
Contestants can pitch four warm-up shoes before play starts. A contestant can also practice while waiting for his or her opponent. Once everyone is ready and the pits are prepared, the game begins. Each inning is comprised of four pitched shoes, with each player pitching two.
Points are scored based on the type of throw. If a shoe encircles the stake and a straightedge can touch both heel caulks without touching the stake, the throw is a ringer and is worth three points.
If any part of the shoe touches the stake, or if a shoe lands within six inches of the stake, it is considered "in count" and is worth one point. Shoes that land out of count don't score any points.
If both a player and the opponent score a ringer in the same inning, the ringers cancel each other out. The shoes that canceled each other are called dead shoes and do not score any points. Typically only one player can score in each inning; typically the player with the higher number of points is the one who scores, though both players could wind up with a zero score if ringers cancel each other out. In count-all scoring, both players are allowed to score points each inning.
A contestant throws both shoes, one at a time, then the opponent throws both shoes. Both shoes must be thrown within 30 seconds. The same arm must be used for pitching throughout a tournament, unless there is a proven medical need to switch arms.
Deciding a Winner
The length of a game is determined at the start. Games are commonly played until one person reaches 40 points. A game could also used a predetermined number of shoes. This is always an even number and is known as a shoe-limit game. When the contestants run out of shoes, the points are counted. The person with the highest number of points is the winner. If there is a tie in a shoe-limit game, a two-inning tie-breaker is played.