The Practice of Practicing Pitching Horseshoes

Some thoughts on horseshoe pitching practice routines

Why Practice?
"Practice makes perfect?"

An out-of-towner on the streets of New York City stops a New Yorker and asks, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" New Yorker replies, "Practice, practice, practice."

If practice makes perfect, and no one is perfect, why practice?

Much practice is done to rewire our brains, but I think to practice horseshoe pitching is to rewire our muscles. Muscle memory is such a key component in horseshoe pitching, at least in my experience.

Warm-up First
It's a good idea to do some warm-up exercises before one begins a physical activity. Yes, horseshoe pitching really is a physical activity. I am not in the medical profession, so I am not giving medical advice, but I like to take a few minutes to stretch the muscles I am about to use. I do some touching of the toes, I flex of my shoulder muscles, and I rotate my arms in circular motions, clockwise, counter clockwise, which also stretches my shoulders a bit. You may want to check with your physician to see what works for you. [Note: at home I do arm and shoulder routines with 5 lb weights, I perform a finger strength exercise, and I have two wrist strengthening exercises.]

Levels of Practice
What is the purpose of your practice session? Maybe it's a nice day out and you just want to walk and pitch some shoes, feel the warm sunshine on your body, and enjoy the fresh air. Or, maybe you are using a new pair of horseshoes and want to learn how to pitch that shoe well. Or, maybe it's competition time--league or tournament play--and you want to improve your pitching percentage.

For Fun
To me, pitching horseshoes for fun is when I pitch 4-6 shoes from one pit to the other and don't keep score. I don't count points or ringers, I just find joy in the arc of the horseshoes as they spin and turn to the opposite stake. (Note: I am a "single flipper" pitcher.) This becomes more of a "mindfulness" exercise than physical. I take in the warm day, maybe the sounds of birds and people chattering, and basically take a walk 40 feet back and forth pitching horseshoes as I step along. My concentration level is minimal, I just walk and pitch.

For League Play and General Competition
The next step "up" in my practice routine is to pitch two pair of horseshoes, playing one pair against the other in a game, usually to 21 points. Sometimes the four shoes may be the same model, at other times I may be trying a new pair and want to compare it to the other. One pair of my Snyder shoes plays the other pair, or maybe a pair of Grabits or Gordons play a pair of Snyders. I try not to "favor" either pair, not purposely pitching one pair better than the other; each pair has the same opportunity to win.

After one pair wins when it reaches 21 points, I pause to analyze why one pair beat the other. Sometimes there is no reason; sometimes I might be trying something different with one pair, such as a different grip or release point; or if I am trying a new pair of shoes, it may be the loser since its weight or model is new to me.

Ringer Percentage
Sanctioned tournament play requires an NHPA pitcher to have a ringer percentage--of 100 shoes, how many are (on average) ringers? The ringer percentage then places a pitcher in a class or group of pitchers with a similar ringer percentage.

To see how close I am to my current ringer average, I pitch 100 shoes, 4 at a time, back and forth to the two pits, counting ringers. If I am above my average, I am very happy. But that is usually not the case.

A goal of practice is to build muscle memory of what your successful pitch is to make a ringer. If you are pitching above your average, try to analyze why you are so successful and remember to concentrate on that sequence of motions so that you can repeat it in a game. If you are not successful, make an adjustment and see if that helps increase ringers.

Consistency with successful muscle memory movements should result in a game that is at the top of your competition level. But whatever your competition level is, enjoy the sport of horseshoe pitching.

For Serious Tournament Competition:
How to Play Against "Mr. 75%," "Ms. 50%," and "Mr. 25%"
One of the best aspects of pitching in tournaments is to meet other pitchers and learn from them. At the 2014 Idaho state singles tournament I spoke with Gary Opper, 17-time(!) state men's champion, about his practice routine. He practices similarly to me, but he has a name for his practice pattern: "Playing Against Mr. 75%." Gary's ringer percentage is above 60%, so whatever he does is worth considering for one's own pitching.

I always encourage people to practice by pitching at least four shoes. There's a good reason it's an advantage to pitch first in competition--the first shoe has no other shoe in its way, and the second shoe only has the first shoe to contend with in the opposite pit. The second pitcher's two shoes have to deal with the first pitcher's two shoes and then one's own first shoe when one tosses the last shoe.

Pitching a ringer into the opposite pit is far easier when it's the first shoe in the pit. Once there already is a ringer (or close shoe) there, later shoes have to contend with any "bounce back" when landing on top of another shoe. The "degree of difficulty" increases when one tries to pitch a ringer on top of another ringer. To pitch four shoes resulting in a call of "Four Dead" is a tough challenge, especially for the second pitcher. So, practice should simulate, as much as possible, realistic play against an opponent.

So I practice (as does Gary) with one or more shoes already placed as ringers in the pit(s). Gary's play against "Mr. 75%" means that he places two ringers in one pit and one in the other to mirror his opponent consistently pitching 3 out of 4 shoes as ringers (75%). Then he pitches his two shoes as the second pitcher in a game. If he pitches better than 75% ringers, he will beat "Mr. 75%."

My play is usually against pitchers with a 50% ringer average, so I place one shoe as a ringer in each pit and play against "Ms. 50%." Another option is to place one shoe in one pit as a ringer and then play against an opponent with a 25% ringer average.

For the shoes of my imaginary opponent in this practice routine, I use very hard shoes to simulate maximum "bounce back," usually a pair of my old "picnic style" Diamond horseshoes (Double Ringers or Super Ringers).

With this setup of 1-3 ringers for one's opponent, the practice routine should provide a good representation of actual tournament competition. If one is in a slump (ringers suddenly become scarce), one's opponent will always score a ringer or two.

One other practice routine I do when I am done playing against "Ms. 50%" is to reset those two shoes as leaners instead of ringers. The difference in one's pitch for a leaner is so subtle that I want to take a little time to practice that. Mostly I add a little loft to my pitch in order to land on top of the leaner. If that first shoe lands on top of the leaner such that the leaner falls away (yes--sometimes it falls as a ringer), then my second shoe has a better chance of being a ringer. And because I pitch a flip, I have another option against a leaner and that is to throw a low and hard flipping shoe against the opposite stake in an attempt to slide under or through the leaner. Sometimes that works.

And as in horseshoes in general, sometimes things just don't work as one intended. Physics come into play and horseshoes magically spin, bounce, or flop in a manner one never imagined.

Enjoy horseshoe pitching, whether in practice or in games.

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