Story by Krystal Spring/Photos by C. Cottrell
Dave Rowin stood in the horseshoe pitcher's box at Holt Stadium in Pocatello, Idaho, carefully eyeing a stake 40 feet away. With a step, swing and release, he tossed a horseshoe into the air. The shoe floated over the pit in an arc and dropped open end first onto the stake, encircling it. The metal clang of a ringer was music to Rowin's ears.
But he didn't stop there. Rowin went on to toss 162 more ringers at the 80th annual World Horseshoe Pitching Championships in Idaho last month. His performance earned him a first-place world champion title in one of dozens of pitching divisions at the tournament. The divisions are divided by the pitchers' handicap. Rowin competed in the M1 Division - a group of 16 horseshoe pitchers who toss ringers 24 percent to 25 percent of the time.
Rowin pitched 600 horseshoes over the course of three days, winning 13 of 15 games, and finishing just a half a game ahead of his top competitor to win the world title - not bad for a man who was competing in his first world tournament.
"I couldn't believe it; I was pretty jazzed," he said. "I gave myself a high five. It was great."
Pitchers can score points in horseshoes in two ways. A "ringer" - where the horseshoe comes to rest encircling the stake - is worth three points. A "close shoe" - where the shoe comes within 6 inches of the stake - is valued at one point. The horseshoeing term "four dead" refers to instances when competitors toss two ringers each in an inning. The ringers cancel each other out and no points are awarded.
"That's always neat because it means you're both throwing well," Rowin said.
Rowin shot with 27 percent accuracy at the world tournament, two points higher than his 25 percent average. But the battle for the first-place title came down to his last game.
"It was close. I was just a few points ahead of the other guy, so it was a pretty stressful game," he said with a laugh. "But I knew what had to be done and I did it."
Like many of his horseshoeing counterparts, Rowin got his start pitching horseshoes as a child, tossing shoes at family gatherings in a back yard or in the Bear Paws. Now a member of the Tip It Bar Ringers League, Rowin said he practices pitching up to four days a week during the summer season.
"I love the game and the camaraderie between players," he said. "Horseshoes begins with a handshake and ends with a handshake."
Rowin wasn't the only Havre resident to place at the world tournament. Retired railroader and farmer Bob Schlieve took home a third-place title in the H2 Division, a group of pitchers who toss ringers about 35 percent of the time. The 70-year-old Schlieve tossed 155 ringers out of 600 shoes at the world championships - nearly 10 percent below his average.
"I didn't shoot well at world," he said. "I really shouldn't have won anything, but I was lucky. A lot of people in my division shot poorly."
Schlieve has collected a box full of horseshoe pitching trophies over the years, including several state titles and a first- place title at the 2002 World Horseshoe Pitching Championships in Canada.
"The competitions at world are tight," he said. "There's no room for miscues. If you shoot a couple of bad games, you can kiss a win goodbye."
At 70 years old, pitchers can move from a 40-foot to a 30-foot pit, but Schlieve said he won't make the move to a smaller pit anytime soon.
"I still shoot at 40 feet and I intend to stay there as long as I can," he said.
Schlieve plays alongside Rowin on Thursday nights as a member of the Tip It league. The league plays on eight horseshoe pits next to the Tip It Bar in North Havre. Rowin said the league's membership has grown steadily over the past few years, with 20 teams participating this year. Unlike the one-on-one competition at the world championships, pairs of horseshoe pitchers compete against each another in league play.
"World is different," Schlieve said. "When you mess up there, you don't hurt anyone but yourself."
For the past three years, Dick Hansen and Don Miller have captured the first-place Tip It league title. The duo said it's no wonder they work well as a team: They've been playing horseshoes together since they were kids. They travel nearly 30 miles from Gildford to Havre every Thursday for league play. They also spend every winter in Arizona, so they're able to play horseshoes all year.
"If you want to play horseshoes year-round, you gotta go south," Hansen said, laughing.
Miller and Hansen will temporarily end their partnership to face off in horseshoeing competition this winter in Arizona.
"We'll be on different leagues, so it should be fun," Hansen said.
Horseshoe pitching has been popular for centuries. The first world tournament was held in Bronson, Kan., in 1910. Schlieve said he encourages men and women of all ages to pick up the game. The Tip It league is open to people of all ages. Women, youths and seniors pitch from 30 feet, while men pitch on 40-foot courts.
A pitcher can qualify for competition at the world championships by participating in three sanctioned horseshoe tournaments.
The Tip It league is wrapping up its season, but several league competitors said they'll be participating at the state competition this weekend in Billings, going head to head with the Big Sky's best.
"If you ain't shooting good, you ain't gonna win," Rowin said.