Have a ringer of a summer by taking backyard horseshoes to the next level
There’s horseshoes, and then there’s horseshoes.
Sure, you can throw back a couple of beers at the family reunion or company picnic and fling a piece of metal at a stick in the ground. You’ll have fun, and that’s great. But consider ratcheting up a level this summer and learning the true potential of horseshoe pitching as a sport.
Dave Loucks knows the lure of the U-shaped hunks of metal. The retired Oroville resident is president of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA).
Loucks, a three-time junior world champion, is sought-after to address and teach serious pitchers and is featured in a video, Basics of Horseshoe Pitching. He was the man behind forming the National Horseshoe Pitchers Foundation in 1996, which paved the way for a Hall of Fame and tournament facilities near Nashville, Tenn.
The day we chatted, after he tossed a few top-quality shoes he had extracted from a professional carrying case, Loucks mentioned that he’d gotten a call that morning from the White House. Loucks and his organization put in courts when George Bush I was president. “Clinton took the courts out, and now Dubya wants to put the courts back in,” he said.
Recently, Loucks traveled to Japan to advise residents who are trying to adapt Western sports that appeal to retirees to the country’s limited open space.
Besides all this, the NHPA will teach anyone how to build a court in their own back yard or offer financial support to bring pits on public land up to speed. (See www.horseshoepitching.com).
There are 20-some horseshoe pitching clubs in Northern California, with about 600 members, but the closest to Chico are the Feather River club, which pitches in Palermo, and the Willows club.
In Butte County, there are pits at the One-Mile Dam in Bidwell Park, at the Honey Run Covered Bridge and Scotty’s Landing on River Road, among other places. None of these are “sanctioned” for tournament play.
Tournaments are held all over the state, from February through November. (The Feather River club is having a big one on July 7-8.) The games are played in round-robin style. “You work your way up to the championship group,” Loucks explained, adding that the structure allows for all skill levels.
“You’re really competing against yourself and your percentage—constantly trying to better yourself,” said Loucks’ wife, Cathie, who edits the newsletter for the Northern California Horseshoe Pitchers Association.
Dave Loucks starting pitching in 1950 through a newspaper-sponsored tournament. He was the junior world champion by age 13.
He dedicates 40 to 50 hours a week to horseshoe pitching pursuits, from preparing for the world tournament (which will draw 3,000 players and spectators to Hibbing, Minn., this August) to working with the nonprofit, charitable foundation that has given out tens of thousands of dollars in junior scholarship trusts.
“No one really makes a living from horseshoe pitching,” Loucks shrugs. A brewery or Kodak will sponsor regional tournaments, and many are broadcast on ESPN, but there is a lack of widespread appreciation of the sport.
But for the diehards, pitching invites good-natured debate over the best way to step, how far to turn, the front swing and back swing and what to choose as your focus point. Professional shoes come in different brands, weights and even degrees of hardness, which players select to match their pitching styles. There’s even some debate—half-strategy, half-superstition—over whether a player should watch his or her shoe while it flies through the air. Professional pitchers know their highest ringer percentage like a bowler knows his 300 game.
Players flip a shoe to see who starts, take up to 30 seconds to “deliver” both shoes and start scoring. Spectators are expected to be quiet, like people watching tennis or golf.
Loucks, observing a group of 20-somethings heaving “picnic shoes” at the One-Mile pits, reiterated that horseshoe pitching is something that appeals to all ages. “We are a family sport—basically almost from cradle to grave,” he said.
“One of the prime advantages of horseshoe pitching is it’s an inexpensive sport,” he said. “You can pick up two pair for 20 bucks in the hardware store.” (Of course, once you really get into it, there are the 30-plus makers of professional-level shoes that can run as high as $60 a pair.)
“You can have fun, relax—there’s no timetable to it. … There’s really no absolutely perfect or correct way to pitch," Loucks said. "You develop your own rhythms and mannerisms, and what works for you may not work for somebody else."