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Ages 6 to 92 Find the Fun in Chucking Iron

Harrisburg - The ringing of steel on steel pierced an otherwise quiet morning during at the 2011 Pennsylvania Farm Show. Members of the Eastern Pennsylvania and Western Pennsylvania Horseshoe Pitching Associations (EPHPA and WPHPA) hosted the Farm Show Shootout Thursday, Jan. 13.

Horseshoe pitching was once a popular spectacle at the Farm Show. After a brief hiatus, the associations returned to the 2007 Farm Show to provide a horseshoe pitching demonstration.

The wood shavings floor of the Small Arena added a variable into the game; normally players stand on a concrete surface, allowing them to push off when launching their horseshoes, while their feet would slip on the dirt. To boot, many players haven't played since the end of regular tournament play in September. Some, however, continue to play in indoor horseshoe ranges or brave the cold at home.

While horseshoes has widely been considered an older man's sport, the participants at the Farm Show prove that theory wrong. Split into two sections, one side of the arena was used for the tournament and the other for the general public of any age to try their hands at horseshoes.

"Last year more than 400 people pitched horseshoes with us," said Denny Hall of Huntingdon, Huntingdon County, of last year's exhibition. "We're on track for that number this year, too." He assisted in demonstrating the basics of the sport to each person that pitched. While he had pitched all his life, 15 years ago he first joined the EPHPA, then joined the National Horseshoe Pitchers' Association. Next year he will become president of the EPHPA.

"This is a sport that everyone can do," he said. "Horseshoes cost as little as $30 - almost no more expense than that. It's good exercise, and gives you something to do."

Horseshoe boxes can be filled with many materials - dirt, clay, gravel, sand and even Memory Foam. "For indoor horseshoe setups, this different material works well," Hall said. Clay tends to be the preferred media for nationally-sanctioned tournaments. When damp, horseshoes stick to the clay upon impact. "You can't slide a horseshoe in that way," he said.

"Ringers" are when the horseshoe hits its mark, hooking around the stake in the middle of the box where it is pitched. A ringer is worth three points. A "close shoe," one less than six inches from the stake, is worth one point. "There are no points for ‘leaners,'" said Hall, referring to when a horseshoe comes to rest leaning against the stake.

Contestants are broken up by skill level - the lifetime percentage of ringers. These classes - A, B, C and D - allow players of equal skill to compete against each other. "We typically compete with people who are anywhere from eight to 75 percent ringers," said Hall.

"This sport requires some physical ability, but a lot of mental preparedness and concentration," explained Ted Van Pelt, Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County.

Competitors are successful even into their 80s, and this year's exhibition's oldest player was Alvin Long, 84, of Shickshinny, Luzerne County, a PA Horseshoe Pitching Hall of Fame member and former state and national horseshoe pitching champion.

Harold Clippinger, formerly of Mt. Holly Springs, now New Cumberland, both in Cumberland County, started pitching with real horseshoes at age six. In 1950 he won the Farm Show's horseshoe pitching tournament at age 17 - the youngest man ever to win the tournament. His uncle John Fulton began pitching at Farm Shows in 1937 at age 18. The Farm Show contest rules included contestants had to make their living off a farm and that a horseshoe champion couldn't participate in the contest the following year. When Fulton won, he had to take a year off from the competition, but every subsequent year he was eligible, Fulton won the competition.
While Clippinger lost in the preliminaries in 1952 and 1953, his uncle won in 1954, he won again in 1955 and his uncle won again in 1956. The Farm Show cancelled horseshoe pitching in 1957, ending a family dynasty.

Clippinger learned the art of pitching horseshoes from watching and imitating the technique of his uncle. "He only told me a few pointers," recalled Clippinger. "One I remember well is, ‘If you throw a good ringer, remember how you did it.'" While Clippinger's father and brothers enjoyed pitching horseshoes, they never found the success of Harold Clippinger and John Fulton.
Results of the Farm Show competition are as follows:

30' Mixed:
1.) Al Long, Shickshinny, Luzerne Co.
2.) Harold Clippinger, Mt. Holly Springs, Cumberland Co.
3.) Kathy Hash, Harrisburg, Dauphin Co.
4.) Chris Woods, York, York Co.

40' Men:
1.) Dale Estep, Shavertown, Luzerne Co.
2.) Kelly Hatrick, West Grove, Chester Co.
3.) Dave Fisher, Allentown, Lehigh Co.
4.) Dave Holliday, Royersford, Montgomery Co.

1.) Emily Hatrick, West Grove, Chester Co.
2.) Matt Holliday, Limerick, Montgomery Co.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor agricultural event in the nation, featuring nearly 6,000 animals, 10,000 competitive exhibits and 290 commercial exhibitors. The show runs Jan. 8-15 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg. Admission is free and parking is $10.

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For photos of the event, click here.