MVSKOKE RESERVATION – Sarah Hicks knows horseshoes. As well she should, she’s a five-time horseshoe pitching state champion and won her most recent championship this year. The daughter of Wilson and Ina Hicks, Sarah was born and raised in Okemah and attributes her success to an early start. Back then it was a family affair. After supper, the family of six would go out and pitch horseshoes in the yard for fun.
It was Hicks’ dad that taught her the tricks to pitches that would end up as ringers. Those are the throws when the shoe lands encircling the stake. Horseshoes can seem to be a deceptively simple game. As Hicks explained it, the details of a throw and the subtle differences in position can change how the shoe rotates. That is where the intricacies of the game come out. As the 18-year MCN employee spoke about those, she also spoke about the past and present. She spoke about the evenings throwing horseshoes when she was little with her parents and siblings, and about her own children pitching horseshoes with her and her husband, Sam Beaver.
“We got different flips… it’s the way you throw your shoes. You can have a single flip (demonstrates a vertical rotation) that’s what I, that’s what mine does. Just a single flip. And my older son’s, his flips real fast,” Hicks said. “And there is a quarter turn…My dad always used to teach me how to do that because he was my champion on that. But you know it was just backyard games. He said if you do a quarter turn he said you’ll never miss. I’ve seen that too and it’s true. So that’s not a flip. It’s a turn that way (demonstrates horizontal rotation) …And he always tried to teach me that but I could never get it. But he was my champion. I guess dad has something to do with it (her interest)… You know, he was always trying to teach me this and that and he’d tell me how he’d throw against the wind and he was trying to teach me a lot of stuff. And so I guess he’s the one who actually got me, you know, playing.”
Rules of Play
Horseshoe games are played in pitching courts where two metal rods called stakes are driven into the ground at distances of up to 40 feet. The area around the stake is called the pit. Pits can be made of broken up clay, dirt, or sand. The court has a pitching lane, the area between the two stakes. Lanes can be dirt, grass, sand or concrete. There is a foul line a pitching player can’t cross. Pitching courts are often seen in Oklahoma as part of municipal parks and fair grounds.
The MCN Claude Cox Omniplex has horseshoe courts and runs a tournament during the MCN festival. Backyard horseshoe courts can be as simple as a grass and dirt lane, or as complex as the concrete and grass courts seen in parks.
Scoring is based on how close one can get their horseshoe to the stake. More points for ringers, less for learners. Those are the pitches that land the horseshoe touching the stake, but not encircling it like the ringers. Players can also cancel out each other’s lands, depending how close they are to the stake.
The playful backyard games turned competitive when Hicks’ husband and a friend of his introduced her to the world of sanctioned tournaments. She has been playing ever since.
“But when I got with my husband, him and his best friend, they got into this sanction tournament. And so I’d get out there and I’d practice with them. And they finally got me into it… So I went out there every weekend with them. We had a, I’m gonna say, a team. We’d have a get together and play against each other… But we still try to get together and then we can play together,” Hicks said.
In the world of competitive horseshoe pitching, sanctioned tournaments are those run by an organization like the Oklahoma Horseshoe Pitchers Association or the National Horseshoe Pitching Association. These organizations run games and tournaments, standardize rules, and support affiliated clubs. They offer prizes and competition in the run-up to bigger tournaments like the statewide championships and nationals.
The Oklahoma Horseshoe Pitchers Association (OHPA) sponsors tournaments all over the state. Hicks, who is the current vice-president of the association has been all over as well playing at pits in Yukon, Edmond, and Choctaw. The OHP offers a men’s section, women’s section, and a juniors section. The difference in section competition is the distance from the line of pitching and the stake. Men usually pitch from 40 feet, women from 30 feet, and juniors at 30 feet.
“…The men throw 40 feet at least and the women throw 30 feet. That’s why we pitched 30 feet. And like I said, you pitch at the sanctioned tournaments, the OHPA, we play against the men too. But at the state championship and the world championship, you know, we play against women, only women. And you come up to get some good ones.” Hicks said.
Hicks would like to get more people involved in tournaments, especially women and children.
“My team captain, he said, make sure you say that we need more women to play and we need a lot more women and juniors to play. I think we have no juniors in OHPA right now…Like I said, we need more women and a lot more women.” Hicks said.
Players bring their own horseshoes, the brand of which is also sanctioned by the organization running the tournament. According to the NHPA, pitching horseshoes have to weigh around 2.5 lbs, with an opening no more than 3.5 inches across. There are slight variations in shape. Some come in bright red or blue, opposed to metallic silver. “Yeah, I throw Broncos. So I’ve always thrown Broncos, but there are different brands of shoes, like most things, and just different ones. So me and my husband and two boys, we all throw different shoes. And I’ve always thrown Broncos.”
As Hicks got involved in sanctioned tournaments, her family got involved as well. Competition runs deep. Hicks can rightfully boast of having a family full of state and world champions. In addition to her state championships, Hicks also won class A championships four years in a row before moving up to championship class.
“I’ve got five… And I’ve got two sons that play, but we did every weekend. We were just gonna play when they were little… Well my youngest one, he’s a four or five times state champion in juniors. My son, we go in different classes, so he’s got about two or three championships in his class,” Hicks said. “My husband.. I don’t know how many state doubles he got!… I’m hoping to get my grandsons and granddaughters into it. My grandson is eight now. But he’s playing football…and the youngest grandson is three…And my two granddaughters are six and four. And I got a pair for one of them already.”
However, the drive to compete in her family extends beyond horseshoes. Hicks’ sons Brandon and Noah both compete in horseshoe pitching, while her son Comanche was a record-breaking competitive weightlifter.
The Fun of Competition
Hicks’ family not only still plays together, they also more importantly practice together. Hicks shared her secret to winning: practice. This is a step in the process that involves family. Competition can also run deep in this stage as well.
“Well, practicing, just practice and practice.” Hicks said. “…when my husband and my boys like to practice, they said they like to practice against me ’cause, you know, they try to beat me… once in a while they will,”
In spite of the competitive thread that runs through the family, the competition itself stays fun for them.
“No, we just see who wins. We just have fun out there.” Hicks said.
Although Hicks was bit by the competitive horseshoe pitching bug, her younger sister Addie Hicks was not. While Addie does not compete in tournaments, Hicks shared that her sister will play and join in for fun after church gatherings at Nuyaka Baptist.
When asked about sportsmanship and competition during sanctioned tournaments Hicks said,
“Everybody, everybody plays like they’re supposed to, they talk and they laugh out there and just go back and forth. Nobody’s down talking or making it uncomfortable for anyone. I have never heard that from anybody. If they have, you know, I’ve never heard of them.” Hicks said.
Hicks gave a good example of the sportsmanship and friendship that can develop from a lifetime of competition, her friend Tina Hawkins.
“I love you Tina! She’s my competition.”
Toward the end of Hicks’ interview, when asked if she’d like to add anything, Hicks got close to the voice recorder and playfully said, “I love you Tina! She’s my competition.”
Hicks’ biggest competition, or her longest match ever? Hicks gave a friendly laugh and said, “That would be Tina Hawkins.” Smiling with her eyes, she explained,
“She is good competition for me. Me and her have been going at it for I don’t know how many years. She used to beat me every year, every year. And let’s see, I think my last win in class A was 2007. So every year she beat me. And these past five years, I’ve got her!…She’s the best competition I ever had. Still is, still is,” Hicks said. “One year me and her were just going back and forth. And I barely beat her, okay. And, at a state tournament you go to 40 points. 40 shoes and we just kept going back forward. I think I don’t know how many shoes we threw just to hit 40. We kept killing each other’s shoes. She puts her shoe on there and then my shoe goes on there, nobody gets no point. Kind of like evens it out…we kept killing each other’s shoes.”
When our conversation ended, the grandmother of four explained what seems to be the draw of horseshoes, “We just have fun out there, I don’t know what else to say”.