Throwing a shoe: 42 compete in state horseshoe championship in Gillette
September 8, 2022
GILLETTE - The sounds of metal against metal rang out Saturday morning, with two-and-a-half pound horseshoes clanking against stakes in the dirt after traveling more than 25 feet in the air.
Forty-two competitors took part in the Wyoming Horseshoe State Championship at Fireside Horseshoe Club behind Fireside Lounge Saturday and Sunday.
The tournament, put on by the Wyoming Horseshoe Pitching Association, included nine people from Gillette, but it also brought in people from all over the state, from Riverton and Green River to Shoshoni and Lovell.
Gillette's Chris Nanneman, the reigning state champion in A Class and the association's president, debunked what he considers a common misconception when it comes to the game of horseshoes.
"I always say that anybody who says 'close only counts in horseshoes' has never played horseshoes," he said.
While one can get points for getting the shoe close to the stake, at the higher levels of competition it's all about who can throw the most ringers.
A ringer occurs when the horseshoe encircles the stake. One's ringer percentage determines what class he competes in.
"That's how you measure yourself, not necessarily wins and losses but ringer percentage," said John Bever of Cheyenne, who was working with a 23%.
Craig Smith of Worland came into the state championship with a 48%, the best he's ever been at.
He has a ritual before every turn, where he bends at the knees and swings his arms a couple of times.
"I try to line the shoe up with the pit, and then I get in rhythm," he said.
It's hard to argue with the results. Smith is fresh off of a world title. In July, he competed in the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association's World Tournament in Monroe, Louisiana. Smith took home first place in his group, the Elder C2 Class.
"It came down to the last shoe, and I ended up tying my last game," he said.
It was that tie game that pushed him ahead of the second-place finisher by a half-game.
He first got into horseshoes 50 years ago. His grandparents had pits in the backyard, and the family would often come together and pitch.
"That was our family entertainment," Smith said.
He stuck with it over the years, even during his 22 years in the U.S. Army, where he always found time to pitch, even if he had to improvise in the absence of actual horseshoes.
"When we ran into an artillery unit, on those big rounds they fire, they've got these clips that are shaped like horseshoes, they're not quite as big, but we used to use those," he said.
Bever had a similar experience in the U.S. Navy.
"We'd just set up pits wherever we were at, and we just played out there in the sand, just for fun," he said.
Steve Maestas of Rock Springs has been playing for close to 40 years. He said that no matter how good your opponent is, you always have a chance to win.
"It's something to challenge a guy who's better than you, and he brings out the best in you to be as good as he is," Maestas said.
The horseshoe scene in Gillette has had a dedicated following, Nanneman said. There were 26 people who participated in a horseshoe league this year. And Gillette hosts five tournaments a year, he added.
One of the biggest hurdles into getting new people to play the game is it's not that simple.
"It looks like it should be really easy," Nanneman said. "It's harder than it looks, so don't give up."
He said he's seen people try horseshoes for the first time only to give it up right away because they didn't score any points.
That was the case for Connie Filley of Newcastle. Her husband introduced her to horseshoes in 1981. It wasn't love at first sight, to say the least.
"I was horrible, so I quit," she said.
But she picked it back up again and entered a tournament. She practiced for three hours a day, and she ended up winning that tournament. And today, she has a combined 29 state titles in Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota.
It's easier to get to the top than it is to remain at the top, Filley said. When you're working your way up, you have that motivation to practice and improve. When you're the champ, you have to deal with everyone else gunning for your spot.
Nanneman said that when he started out, he went with a flip shoe, where the horseshoe is flipped over backwards. Then Gillette's Phil Plotke, who won 13 state championships before he passed away in 2021, taught Nanneman how to throw a turn shoe.
"It's a completely different grip, and the shoe turns in the air kind of like a frisbee," Nanneman said. "Learning to get that to land open so it can go on the stake every time is pretty difficult, that took me probably two to three years to master getting the shoe to just land open all the time."
The mental aspect of horseshoes is just as important, said reigning women's state champ Tracie Binkerd.
"It's not as simple as stepping up and chucking a shoe down there, you have a lot that goes into it."
It's very easy to overthink things in horseshoes, she said.
"You have to think about your swing, your step, how you're holding the shoe, where you're releasing the shoe. It's really, really easy to get in your own head, and start thinking about everything, when really you need to step up there and do what you can do," Binkerd said.
Filley said she's found the game to be cyclical. There are ebbs and flows in games, tournaments and even seasons.
"I have to accept the fact this is the way it is, it happens like that, and it'll swing back," she said.
"It all boils down to discipline, figuring out what works for you and getting rid of your bad habits," Smith said.
Binkerd, of Cheyenne, has been competing for five years. She used to travel with her parents to tournaments, but her participation started and ended at scorekeeper.
"It always looked like fun, but every time I tried, I was bad," she said. "Five years ago, I decided, if I was going to tournaments, I was going to start competing in them."
Binkerd and Filley had high praise for the other, with Binkerd calling Filley her "biggest competition."
"Last year was a down year for her and she's coming back up," Binkerd said.
"Tracie's an excellent pitcher, I foresee she's going to be Wyoming state champion for many years," Filley said
If there's one thing Bever hates about horseshoes, it's the scoreboard. He doesn't even look at the score when he's playing.
"If you're coming from behind it seems like you're more focused. When you've got the lead, you've got to be careful, because you don't want to get lackadaisical in the lead, so I prefer not to know," he said. "I like to play like I'm behind but not even think about what the score is."
Nanneman said it's always better to be in the lead, but he loves a good comeback.
"It's tough to play from behind, but it's more satisfying to come from behind and win a game," he said.
"I actually do pretty well under pressure," Binkerd said. "If I'm behind I tend to throw more ringers, but I'll take a W if I can."
Maestas said that when he was younger, falling behind in a game was his calling card.
"They used to call me, back in the day, Ketchup, because I'd be losing 21-2, and I would catch up and beat them," he said. "Not anymore, now they've got to catch me."
The financial gain from horseshoes is minimal, Smith said.
"If you play horseshoes for money, you're a fool," he said. "You can't make no money playing horseshoes."
For his world title, Smith was awarded $500, which didn't come close to covering his drive from Wyoming to Louisiana.
Luckily, the 42 competitors in the state tournament aren't in it for the money. They were there for fun and for the people.
Maestas said he just enjoys meeting new people and reuniting with friends he hasn't seen in a very long time.
"I consider this to be my horseshoe family," Binkerd said. "I'll travel for five hours so I can see people I haven't seen in a year."
"It's just like we're family," Smith said.
Even though there's no money in it, and although it can be tough to get the hang of it, if one sticks with it, it can be very rewarding, Nanneman said.
"Don't give up, and have fun," he said. "If you have fun, you can fall in love with it."