3 Horseshoes, own photo taken at Frontier Culture Museum

The Horseshoe of Early Modern Europe

Have a lame horse? There is a fix for that! Are you bored? There is a fix for that too! Are you scared of witches invading your farm? Well have no fear, the horseshoe is here! That is right, the horseshoe can help all these issues! And not just in this time period, but also way back in the days of Early Modern Europe. The horseshoe of Early Modern Europe is an object of great importance for the time period. Not only was the horseshoe used for aiding the horses during work, but it was also used in the game of horseshoes and there was a legend that surrounded it.

The horseshoe is a practically used tool for helping horses in work and in keeping their feet protected. Horseshoes were typically made of iron for this time period which was a step up from the leather “hipposandles” [1]. The horseshoes were now being made of metal and were created and put on by the blacksmith. Even thought the horseshoe was made of iron, they were not typically made with new iron “directly from the bloomery or mill” [2]. This is because new metal was hard to acquire before the mid-nineteenth century. As a result, many tools and horseshoes that a blacksmith would make were typically made from scrap iron that the blacksmith would acquire [2].Typically the horseshoe is considered to be nailed on to protect the hoof and horse from lameness [3a]. However, it is debated as to whether or not this was this original purpose. Scholar Charles Green proposed, upon further examination, that with the way the early horseshoes were made that the original use was for better traction. This is highly likely due to the fact that the horseshoe consisted of nails and calkins (metal bulbs on the heels of the shoe) which protruded down, which would cause the horse to be standing on these protrusions when on flat, hard ground therefore gaining more traction, almost like track spikes [3a]. However, traction was not the only concern when developing and using the horseshoe in Early Modern Europe.


Horseshoe, own photo taken at Frontier Culture Museum

Protection of the hoof seems to have also been a key factor. In northern Europe the conditions tended to be colder and damper which could lead to the softening and wearing of the hoof wall and heels. The horseshoe would come into play by creating a barrier between the hoof and the ground, allowing for better protection from such conditions [3a&b]. There are also some cases of specific shoes beyond traction and protection. There is evidence of early correction shoes to help horses with gait issues or lameness occurrences. These shoes could have extra pieces such as a bar across the heel for lameness issues or there was also an early ‘feather-edged shoe’ where the inner branch of the shoe is narrower and thickened and lacked nail-holes that was used in the case of gait issues [3c]. These are prime examples of the evolving ideas and techniques that Early Modern Europe witnessed.

The horseshoe was also used in a game of horseshoes after its original job was done. The game of horseshoes is when there are two metal pegs approximately thirty-eight feet apart and opponents stand at each spike and toss the shoe in hopes of getting it around the peg. Horseshoes actually originated from two other events from the Greeks and Romans: discuss and quoits. Quoits is actually a modification on discuss and further along horseshoes became a modification on quoits [4]. Horseshoes originated when Grecian and Roman army “camp followers”, whom could not afford discus and quoits, set up two stakes and threw discarded horseshoes at them [4]. There is also the speculation that the lower ranks of the Roman army pitched horseshoes, while the officers threw quoits [5]. Which actually paves the way for when English peasants pick the game up. By the sixteenth century, after both horseshoes and quoits being outlawed since 1388, these English peasants were playing both games, but primarily horseshoes [5]. This shows that even the everyday people of Europe, such as peasants, found some time to enjoy a leisurely activity derived from more of a nobleman’s game.

The horseshoe is often seen as an object that brings and holds a certain amount of luck. The folklore behind this practical object was that it would be hung over a threshold to “keep off witches” and bring good luck [6]. However, how did this come to be? How does a simple object of practicality for an animal’s foot come to also represent such luck and safe-guarding? Well there are actually various explanations as to why this became so:

One belief takes after a Jewish Passover tradition. This tradition is that blood would be “sprinkled upon the doorposts and lintel of the house” when it came time for the Jewish feast. This blood would form “the chief points of an arch” and it is believed that the horseshoe was adopted as an arch-shaped talisman as well for good luck. There was also another arch connection with the peasants of west Scotland. These peasants would bend “the boughs of the rowan, or mountain-ash tree, in the form of an arch over a farmyard gate, in order to protect their cattle from evil.” Again leading to the arch shape to be seen as a lucky and guarding symbol [7].

Another belief is that of “a serpent emblem.” This theory proposes that in ancient times, the horseshoe was seen as a symbol “relating to serpent-worship” due to its primitive form in that the shape and the arched body of a snake look similar. The theory evens goes further to connect the head and tail of the snake to be akin to the prongs on the ends of the horseshoe. There is an example of a church in Crendi in the southern part of Malta, where a statue has a protective symbol lying at its feet “in the shape of a half-moon encircled by a snake.” So the shape of the horseshoe is still at play here and still seen as protective symbol [7].

A third theory is that it resembles the shape of a crescent moon. Crescent moons have been thought to have a great influence over the daily deeds of life and also over the growing of crops. Therefore it was believed that the crescent shape of the horseshoe was a luck charm relating to the influence of the moon. The shape of the crescent moon would often be used around farms and on harnesses of horses for good measure, as would the horseshoe [7].

One last theory, as there are at least ten possible theories, is that the horse itself is also seen as a sacred animal. This theory suggests that not only does the shape of the horseshoe bring on the protection and luck of people and buildings, but also its relation and use on such a legendary animal. Groups such as early Celts, Teutons, and Slavs were known to practice “horse-worship” and in Northern India, the horse itself was regarded as a lucky animal. But when it comes down to the horseshoe, the use of it against witches “has been ascribed to the Scandinavian superstition known as the Demon-mare.” German countries would also use the horse and its shoe as talismans for houses, animals, and people alike as safeguards due to the relation of the horse being seen as sacred and lucky [7].

Whatever the theory one may use in defending their use of the horseshoe as a talisman, the general consensus tends to be relating to the early modern period as a way to ward off witches, evil spirits, and bring in good luck. Robert Lawrence quotes some advice from a periodical about the repeal of “the so-called Witch Act” in regards to the use of a horseshoe:

To secure yourself against the enchantments of witches, especially if you are a person of fashion and have never been taught the Lord’s Prayer, the only method I know is to nail a horseshoe upon the threshold. This I can affirm to be of the greatest efficacy, insomuch that I have taken notice of many a little cottage in the country with a horseshoe at its door, where gaming, extravagance, Jacobitism, and all the catalogue of witchcrafts have been totally unknown. [7]

So it is seen that the horseshoe had a major influence in regards to luck and warding off the evil spirits and incantations of witches, therefore adding another purpose for the practical, everyday object.



[1] Rachel Cohen, “The History of Horseshoes,” Dressage Today, http://dressagetoday.com/article/history-of-horseshoes-17802.

[2] John D. Light, “A Dictionary of Blacksmithing Terms,” Historical Archaeology 41, no. 2 (2007): 89, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25617445.

[3] John Clark, “Horseshoes,” in The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment ed. John Clark (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004).

  1. pg.75
  2. pg.76
  3. pg.82
[4] David Sullivan, “History of Horseshoe Pitching,” National Horseshoe Pitchers Association, http://www.horseshoepitching.com/gameinfo/history.html.

[5] “Horseshoes History.” 

[6] “The Good Luck Horseshoe,” The William and Mary Quarterly 17, no. 4 (1909): 247, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1915528.

[7] Robert M. Lawrence, “The Folk-Lore of the Horseshoe,” The Journal of American Folklore 9, no. 35 (1896): 288, http://www.jstor.org/stable/534117.

Clark, John. “Horseshoes.” In The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment, edited by John Clark. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004.
Cohen, Rachel. “The History of Horseshoes.” Dressage Todayhttp://dressagetoday.com/article/history-of-horseshoes-17802.
Lawrence, Robert M. “The Folk-Lore of the Horseshoe.” The Journal of American Folklore 9, no. 35 (1896): 288-292. http://www.jstor.org/stable/534117.
Light, John D. “A Dictionary of Blacksmithing Terms.” Historical Archaeology 41, no. 2 (2007): 84-157. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25617445.
Sullivan, David. “History of Horseshoe Pitching.” National Horseshoe Pitchers Associationhttp://www.horseshoepitching.com/gameinfo/history.html.
“The Good Luck Horseshoe.” The William and Mary Quarterly 17, no. 4 (1909): 247-248. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1915528.