Editor's Note: Roy W. Smith of CA was a top ranking player in his own right a few years ago and is one of the foremost students and authorities on the game. Author of "Science at the Stake" no one is better qualified to put into words the correct way to pitch horseshoes and improve playing techniques.
Assuming that you are a spectator on the sidelines of a public court, you will see an expert player perform this way. (right handed pitcher)
The player takes a position on the pitcher's platform, to one side opposite the stake. Placing the feet carefully, so the pitcher is well balanced, standing erect. Gripping the shoe, extending it to full-arm length in front. The pitcher holds the shoe -caulks down- at about a 45 angle to the ground. Swinging it up on a level with the eyes, sighting it at the opposite stake. Bending slightly at the knees and leaning forward at the waist, the pitcher swings the shoe backward in an easy manner. A split second before the back swing is completed the pitcher steps forward. This delivery-step is executed with the foot that is opposite the delivery-arm. The shoe does not pause at the end of the back swing. The arm swings forward, straight from the shoulder, like the pendulum of a clock. As the shoe passes the standing leg, in the front-swing, the pitcher brings -it to a level position with a free, natural roll of the arm. At this exact moment, the delivery-step is completed and the body-weight is smoothly shifted to the left foot. The right knee straightens up to its natural position and the body rises with the swing. The shoe is released as it swings up in line with the eyes and the opposite stake.
Released in a level position, the shoe leaves the hand cleanly. The release is effected with a deft and delicate wrist-motion. There is no jerk or snap of the arm and wrist. After releasing the shoe, the player's hand swings up, above the head, in a graceful follow-through. At no time is there any lost-motion in the delivery. All movements are smooth and well coordinated. The shoe floats lazily through the air in an arc that is about 8 feet high at its highest point. (The height of the trajectory varies with different players.) Wobbling as it travels, the shoe begins to "break open" just before it crosses the foul line of the pitcher's box. The shoe drops open-end-first onto the stake. There is a sharp clink as the shoe encircles the stake. A ringer! A few moments later, the second shoe is sent on its way to land on top of the first one. A double ringer!
The Fundamentals of the Delivery
Wherever horseshoe pitchers gather to play, you can see many different styles used in delivering. Some of these styles are smooth and correct. But many others are not. Merely picking up a pitching shoe and throwing it does not mean that a person can control it. On many occasions, you can hear a great deal about the importance of the delivery. But, all too often, the fundamentals that go to make up the delivery do not receive enough attention. Even though a horseshoe may represent a symbol of luck to some people, there is little or no luck involved in pitching ringers. Nor is there any shortcut that will quickly transform a novice into an expert player. Many hours of patient and correct practice are necessary to develop a good pitcher.
Described and analyzed are the necessary basic-fundamentals in their proper sequence. These are:
(1) The pitching grips;
(4) Pendulum swing;
(5) The follow-through;
(6) Timing and rhythm.
The Pitching Grips and Different Turns
A beginner must start with a proper hold on the shoe. It is impossible to establish a fixed rule relative to the grips. Very few of the champions hold and deliver their shoes alike. This is because of the variation in the size and shape of their hands, the length of their fingers and methods of release.
There are several ways of gripping a horseshoe to make it land "open" at the stake. With the grip for the one and one-quarter (1-1/4) turn, it is possible to also throw the one-quarter (1/4) turn, and two and one-quarter (2-1/4), and the three and one-quarter (3-1/4) turn. The one and three-quarter (1-3/4) grip can be used for the three-quarter (3/4) turn and the two and three-quarter (2-3/4) turn. Then there are the single and double flop shoes. These are frequently called "tumble" shoes. Sometimes a turn and a flop are combined. Backward or reverse turns are quite common.
With the exception of the one and one-quarter and the one and three-quarter turns, all the others are considered unorthodox and are called "freak" or "off turns. A few pitchers have become skillful enough with some of the "freak" turns to win a state championship title. As a rule, however, an off-turn pitcher cannot play a consistent game.
The "turns" given a horseshoe is indicated by the number of revolutions it makes in flight. To make a shoe turn either 1-1/4 or 1-3/4 times around in flight, it must be held by one or the other of its two shanks. When picking up a horseshoe, the proper way to hold it is with the fingers wrapped around one of the shanks. The thumb extends across the top of the shank. It is very much like holding a dinner plate between your finger and thumb. The index or forefinger and middle fingers go underneath. But here, the comparison with the dinner plate ends because the first joints of the fingers curve up over the edge of the inner-circle of the shoe. The third finger may be used like the index and middle fingers. Or, if the little finger is small and unable to balance the shoe alone, the third finger is used to assist the little finger. Some authorities call this the "gun-handle grip." That is a good definition too because the grip is very much like that used on a pistol-butt, with the forefinger acting as "the trigger finger."
Hold for 1 ¼ turn
Hold for 1 ¾ turn
While holding for the 1-1/4 turns, the opening of the shoe is to the left. With the 1-3/4 turns, the opening is to the right. This explanation applies if the player is right-handed. Left-handers or "southpaws" hold the opposite way.
To balance your shoe best, grip it about halfway between the heel and toe caulks. A few days practice will show whether your grip should be shifted a little either way to perfect the balance. If you want a more full-hand grip, shift the weight of the shoe from the first to the main joint of your index finger. This places the shoe farther back in your palm. The best way to place your thumb is straight across the shank. If you want to change the pointing of your shoe, merely shift your grip and change the pointing of your thumb. Don't try the obsolete method of curving your forefinger around one of the heel caulks! That is as outmoded as the Model T Ford. The correct balance and turn cannot be secured in any way but the way out-lined.
Features of the One and three-quarter Turn
The 1-3/4 turns requires a slightly different muscular action of the arm and a little more wrist-action than the 1-1/4 turns. Having an additional half-turn to make, the 1-3/4 shoe opens a little slower. It is not so easily affected by wind as other type shoes. Most players using the 1-3/4 turn, find that the shoe balances better when held near the toe. It can be pitched fairly low and made to wobble nicely in flight. (A good flight wobble is desirable.) As a rule, however, the 1-3/4 turn's shoe must be pitched higher than the 1-1/4 turn's shoe. As stated before, it needs more time to complete the extra half-turn and "break open."
Gripping the shoe near the heel makes it open more quickly. Actually, it does not turn any faster, but when held near the heel - with the thumb in a parallel position to the shank - the shoe is already turned in the hand. In reality, this is a one and five-eighths turn. When gripped near the toe, the opening of the shoe is pointed halfway between the right and front. (That is when the shoe is extended, in the flat position, before the player.) This is, in reality, a one and seven-eighth turn. However, regardless of the pointing of the shoe, the turn is called the one and three-quarter. The slightest change in your grip will make a difference in the way your shoe balances and turns. Pitchers with long, supple swings, find it unnecessary to hold their shoes near the heel to secure enough turns.
Features of the One and One-Quarter Turn
As a rule the 1-1/4 turns requires more careful attention than the 1-3/4 turns. Less wrist-motion is required to pitch the 1-1/4 turns. It is easier to watch in flight. It can be pitched rather low and made to wobble nicely in flight. Usually, the fingers are spread a little more widely on the shank of the shoe. Holding the 1-1/4 shoe near the toe, with the thumb placed in a parallel position of the shank, makes it a one and one-eight turn. Gripping near the heel will produce a one and three-eighths turn. However, this turn is always called the one and one-quarter. It is not as good a wind shoe as the 1-3/4 turn's shoe. A slow turning 1-1/4 turn shoe that lands too flat is likely to rebound off the stake. But when given a good wobble and made to hook the stake from the right and left sides, the 1-1/4 turn shoe is very effective.
How to select a Turn
To find out which turn is best for your style of pitching, experiment with both for awhile. Choose the one that is easiest to control. After selecting the turn you prefer, stay with it until you master it. Don't try to change your grip and turn to conform to that of every expert you meet. Some players, after using a turn for years, try to improve their pitching by changing to the other turn. After doing this, they may play well for awhile, then begin to "get off' their game. This adverse reaction may be due to the fact that their muscles have been trained for a long time to function for the first turn. When the novelty of the second turn has worn off, the player begins to lose control because his muscles have not been properly trained for the new turn.
Some players can switch turns without much difficulty. Many of the experts can throw all the various turns, but rely on their most natural one for competitive playing. The average pitcher will do best by sticking to his original turn, providing it is one of the two championship turns.
Unorthodox or "Off" Turns
Without correct instruction, many beginners make a great mistake by starting with the three-quarter (3/4) turn. Because it is easy to watch in flight, they deceive themselves by thinking it is their natural turn. Here are several reasons why the three-quarter turn is a poor one:
- To be controlled in the air, the shoe must be delivered in a low, swift manner. This calls for a stiff-armed delivery on the part of the player. After using a stiff arm for awhile, the pitcher finds it difficult to change to a better turn.
- A shoe that turns less than 1-1/4 times in flight is hard to control because it does not have enough flight-wobble to break the velocity of its fall. It goes too straight on the stake. More ringers are lost, due to rebound, with the three-quarter turn than any other, with the possible exception of the flop-over shoes.
- The way the three-quarter shoe must be delivered prevents a player from keeping a consistent line on the stakes. To keep the shoe from turning too much, the pitcher has to swing it by the leg in a flat or horizontal position. To avoid fouling the shoe against the leg, the pitcher has to either pull the leg inward at the knee or swing the shoe farther out or away from the leg. Either method prevents the pitcher from keeping the swing in line with the stake.
It is possible to make most of the shoes land open with the three-quarter turn. But there is much more to pitching horseshoes than merely throwing an open shoe. Zipping low and swiftly through the air, the three-quarter shoe often skids out of scoring distance when it misses the stake. Very few players are able to pitch over 60% ringers with it.
A turn that is faster than the 1-3/4 is difficult to watch and control. It turns too fast to permit the accurate timing required for it to arrive open at the stake. Besides, pitching a fast-turning shoe requires too much arm and wrist effort, which works a hardship on the player. The poorest turns of all are the single and double-flop (tumble) shoes. That is a shoe that turns end over end, instead of around, in flight. The least bit of wind affects them adversely. Like the three-quarter turn shoes, the flop-over shoes go too straight on the stake and rebound badly.
Exceptions Prove the Rule
There are exceptions to these rules, but they only serve to prove the rules, to use an old cliché. Curt Day of IN won the 1966 and 1971 World Title with a 3/4 reverse.
Harold Reno of OH won the 1961 and 1964 World Title with a reverse 1-1/4 turn and Danny Kuchcinski, formerly of PA, won the World Title in 1967, 1969 and 1970 with a reverse.
However these three exceptions tend -to prove the fundamental rules. All have tremendous natural accuracy, which is probably superior to all other players. Furthermore the swing step, rhythm and timing of these experts is almost letter perfect and fundamentally sound. All throw their reverse turn in a natural fashion. Day was formerly a star softball pitcher and his release of the shoe which gives it the reverse turn comes naturally because of the style he developed pitching softball.
Both Reno and Day seem to lose more ringers from bouncing off the stake in national competition than other top players which is the biggest fault to be found with unorthodox turns because of the extra force and effort which must be put into the delivery.
Turning the Shoe
Without proper instruction, many beginners acquire the bad habit of forcing their turns with their wrists. When held and delivered correctly, the shoe - not the player - does most of the work. The late Guy Zimmerman, who was one of the world's top-flight pitchers, gave the following instructions about securing the proper turn:
"Hold your shoe at full-arm length before you. Swing it - in the flat position -up so it is in line with your eyes and the opposite stake. As you start your back swing, turn the shoe to the vertical position. Keep the shoe in this position until after if passes your leg in your forward swing. Then, bring the shoe back to a level position with a free, natural roll of your arm. Keep your wrist stiff and in its natural position. As the shoe again comes up into a direct line with your eyes and the opposite stake, relax your fingers and release. Be sure to release your shoe in a level position so it will land flat and 'dead.' Otherwise, the shoe will land on edge and roll."
Most top players make their aim-point correspond with their release-point. This prevents a variation in the length of their swing. Swing your shoe back and forth in the vertical position. Note the slight pull exerted on your fingers as the shoe starts to level into release position. Just for an experiment, swing the shoe back and forth while letting it hang vertically from only one or two fingers. Notice how the shoe almost levels itself with your arm roll. Your wrist merely turns with your arm as the shoe swings into a level or release-position. This deft, delicate movement of your wrist is all that is necessary to secure your turn. This wrist-motion is commonly called "wrist-snap" or "wrist-flip." However, this definition is incorrect. Several different motions can be made with the wrist without "snapping" or "flipping" it. Prove this for yourself. Let your arm hang naturally at your side. Touch your thigh with your palm. Swing your arm up in front of you, letting your palm turn upward, with a free, natural roll of your arm. There is not any "wrist-snap" involved in such a motion, regardless of how fast you do it.
The late Guy Zimmerman, a former world champion, described the wrong method of securing the turn: "When you hold your shoe in the flat or horizontal position, during your swing, your arm is deprived of its free, natural roll. Thus, the only way the shoe can be made to turn is to force it with a snap or jerk of your arm and wrist. This works a hardship on your arm. Your shoes will not open consistently because you cannot regulate the turn with your wrist alone. It is difficult to swing the shoe - in the flat position - by your leg without fouling. Like the three-quarter-turn pitcher, you must either pull your leg inward or swing the shoe farther away from your leg. Either way is not conducive to consistent alignment.
Regulating the Turn
Much patient practice is required to master a turn. A beginner usually starts by spinning the shoe too much. The grip and method of delivery should keep the shoe from turning less than twice in flight. For the maximum of control, a shoe must turn more than once and less than twice around during flight. If your turn is too slow, raise your trajectory. (Flight elevation of your shoe.) If your turn is too fast, lower the elevation. In other words, to speed the turn, swing the shoe up a little more in the vertical position before leveling it into release position. To retard or slow down the turn, level the shoe into the flat or horizontal position a little more quickly before releasing. Shifting the grip a little up (nearer the toe) and down (nearer the heel) on the shank of the shoe will also speed and retard the turn. But raising and lowering the trajectory is the best method of regulating the turn because no variation of the grip is necessary.
It is difficult to describe the release because it occurs too quickly for the eye to follow. The best way to study your release is through the eye of a slow-motion video camera. But video cameras are not always available for this purpose; nevertheless, you can learn a great deal about your release by employing slow motion in your delivery during practice.
Your grip should be firm, yet flexible, neither too tight nor too loose. Holding too tightly causes undue strain on the hand and wrist. Besides, it may cause your shoe to either turn too much or flop over in flight. If your grip is not firm enough, the shot may either fail to turn enough or slip from your fingers before you are ready to release. Finger control is very important. To release your shoe correctly, you must train your fingers to relax at precisely the right time. This split-second action becomes automatic with practice.
Your release-point should correspond with your aim-point. Your finger positions on the shoe's shank must be correct and they must not be allowed to slip during the swing. Your turn is entirely dependent on the way you grip, swing and release your shoe. All your fingers - not just a certain one - along with your thumb, are the governors of your release. Study your release closely. Notice that your forefinger ("trigger finger") remains in contact with the shoe longer than your other fingers and thumb. Thus, your forefinger imparts the final influence to the shoe.
When preparing to deliver, extend the arm. Hold the shoe - caulks down - in the flat position. Grip it just tight enough with the fingers and thumb to keep it from tipping down. The weight-feel of the shoe should impart the proper finger tension for a firm, yet flexible grip. When released, the shoe must leave your hand cleanly. Don't let it slide off your fingers. The less drag on your fingers the better. Don't try to affect the release with a jerk of your arm or wrist. Let the shoe flow smoothly from your hand.
At this point, you have been instructed as to the proper ways of gripping, turning and releasing your shoe. Now you must learn the correct stance and footwork.
Ted Allen, one of the greatest champions in the history of horseshoes, regards proper stance as one of the most important fundamentals.
Several different methods of stance are popular among experts. At no time should you stand rigid or tense. Your body should be naturally erect, with all your muscles free from tension. Most good pitchers assume a slight crouch. Stand to one side, on a line about even with the stake. Stand on the pitcher's platform not in the clay around the stake. A right-handed player should stand to the left of the stake. A left-hander takes his position on the right-hand side of the stake. Thus, you keep your delivery-arm in line with the stakes.
The stakes are the center of the alignment. Each stake leans three inches toward the other. When you deliver from the wrong side of the stake, you are pitching crossfire or off center of the alignment. Not only that, you are pitching several inches farther than necessary and it is difficult to gauge your step properly. Always pitch from the same side of the stake at both ends of the court, i.e., if you stand to the left of the stake at the south end of the court, stand on the left at the north end.
One of the most popular methods of stance is with the left foot six or eight inches back of the right. All of the body-weight rests on the right foot. The left foot is merely used to balance the body. As you swing your shoe backward, relax your right hip and knee and bend slightly forward at the waist. Your weight remains on your right foot until your forward step is completed. Then your body-weight is smoothly shifted to your left foot. Your body straightens up as you swing forward and release. Such is the style of many top-ranking players.
Some experts stand with the left foot a few inches ahead of the right foot. Others stand with both feet together. Either way, the body-weight is chiefly on the right foot. (That is, if the player is right-handed.) Regardless of the method you adopt, always assume a "square stance." That is, stand squarely facing the opposite stake, with your shoulders square with the court. Point your right toe straight at the opposite stake. Your left foot, whether a few inches ahead or behind your right, should be parallel with your right foot. Don't allow your right toe to point off to the right. This may off balance you just enough to cause you to pitch to the right of the stake.
Be sure that you are well balanced before starting your delivery. Perfect balance means perfect coordination and accurate alignment. The square, well-balanced stance will become a habit with practice. Here is why such a "habit" should be cultivated right at the start: A player pitches 100 shoes and makes 60 ringers. The pitcher fails to get ringers with 40 of the shoes. About 15% of the misses are due to a poor turn trajectory. The remaining 85% of the misses are due to poor alignment, most of which is caused by the careless way of standing.
The delivery-step governs the swing and follow-through to a great degree. This step serves a twofold purpose. It makes it easier for the player to swing the shoe and maintain balance. Employ a normal step, like that used when walking. A short, easy stride is sufficient to place ample propelling power behind your shoe. A too long step will throw you off balance and cause a too low trajectory. The step is started a split second before the arm reaches the summit of its back swing. The step is completed about the moment the shoe passes the standing leg, during the front-swing. The step must be perfectly timed with the swing.
A right-handed player should step forward with his left foot. A left-hander should go ahead on his right foot. A perfect coordination of the right arm and left leg (or vice versa) enables a player to develop a longer swing, a smooth follow-through and a well-balanced delivery. Always step and swing directly toward your mark, be careful not to acquire the bad habit of cross stepping. Stepping out of line is one of the most common faults to overcome. A "pigeon-toed" step (turning the toe inward) throws the body off balance and ruins the alignment. Proper footwork is one of the secrets of balance and timing in all sports. It is too bad that so many pitchers fail to realize this.
Some rather good right-handed players step ahead with the right foot. But, very few champions are developed with this form. Such a method of footwork throws the body into a contortion, in the region of the hips, at the peak of release. A contortion-like delivery gradually affects the spinal nerves and robs a player of endurance. Study this form closely in front of a full-length mirror and see how awkward it looks. Notice how it twists your body to one side and causes you to pitch with a lunging motion.
If you are using such poor playing form, make up your mind to step with your other foot. (The foot opposite your delivery arm) It may be rather difficult to make such a change, but it can be done with practice. A better delivery is well worth the effort. Frank Jackson, many times a national champion during his playing career, stood with his left foot planted firmly ahead. He did not step at all. But, he was a powerful man with an. exceptionally long back swing. Jimmy Lecky, a former Arizona State champion, pitched right-handed and stepped with his right foot. However, this was due to an injury of his left heel and it was not his natural style. These two great players are exceptions to the rule. The average player cannot develop an easy delivery with their methods of footwork. Many years have elapsed since anyone has won a national title with the wrong-foot-ahead method of footwork. To acquire control of your shoe, you must learn to control your feet.