Myth, magic and mystery: 12 interesting facts you might not know about horseshoes

  • Horses have been wearing nailed-on shoes for well over around 1,500 years, ample time for this simple lump of metal to amass a wealth of myth, magic and history. Here are 12 interesting facts you may not know about horseshoes. If you’re not the superstitious type, skip to point 7. There’s a whole lot of fortune attached to the humble horseshoe.

    1. Most of us recognise a horseshoe as a symbol of luck and protection. It is a superstitious symbol dating back hundreds of years to a blacksmith and his dealings with the devil. Legend has it that the devil asked the blacksmith to put horseshoes on his hooves, so the blacksmith duly burned and nailed them on. However, this caused the devil excruciating pain, enabling the blacksmith to make a pact with him, only removing the shoe on the condition that the devil would never to enter a home with a horseshoe hanging by the door.

    2. In medieval times, there was a belief that witches and evil spirits had a fear of horses, especially their iron horseshoes which could withstand fire. Hence they preferred to travel by broomstick than horse. Witches – if not burned – were buried in coffins with a horseshoe nailed on to prevent them from resurrecting.

    3. Should you hang your horseshoe up or down? The jury is out on the correct way – in a U-shape, or with the two points facing downwards. Some say the U-shape is correct, as all the luck keeps collecting in the curve, ensuring protection. Others say if you hang it “upside down” the good luck will pour out over you – or maybe drain out. Maybe try one of each?

    4. Even the traditional number of holes in a horseshoe is lucky. Shoes tended to have seven holes to hold them in place, a number which is considered lucky in many cultures as it is ubiquitous in our world: seven continents, seven colours in a rainbow, seven days in a week, seven seas, seven dwarves, 007 and so on… Nowadays, however, many farriers use an even amount of nail holes on each side.

    5. Modern horseshoes are made from of a range of different materials, from steel to aluminium, or even rubber, plastic horseshoes and copper coated nails. The early shoes were made of iron, which was thought to have mystical powers due to its magnetic properties, abundance within the human body, and ability to withstand fire. More magical luck….

    6. If you’re in serious need of change in fortune, the luckiest horseshoe of all is purported to be one from the hindleg of a grey mare.

    7. Despite the devil’s painful experience with the blacksmith (see point 1), shoeing does not actually hurt a horse. Horses’ hooves are made from thick layers of keratin, the same protein found in human nails and hair. Shoes are nailed on to the outer layer of the hoof, where there are no nerve endings and therefore it doesn’t hurt – nor does the act of burning on the shoe to ensure the correct fit. You can recognise the smell of the briefly burnt hoof as the same as when you actually catch your hair in a candle flame! However, beneath this insensitive outer shell, the hoof itself is made up of several layers of soft tissue with blood vessels and nerves – so the horse can still feel pain in his hoof due to other causes.

    8. Historians debate when the first iron horseshoe was used, and in which culture. In Roman times, horses wore a protective leather and metal sandal – rather like a hoof boot today – and within 600 years or so, farmers began nailing metal shoes on their horses’ feet. There were certainly iron shoes used during the 12th century Crusades, while bronze shoes seem to have been in mainstream use in Europe from around 1000AD. Hot shoeing became popular in Britain and France in the 16th century, and by the early 19th century and the coming Industrial Revolution, shoes were cast by machine on a large scale.

    9. The word farrier was originally “ferrour” in Middle English, and has its roots in the Latin word for iron, “ferrum”.

    10. Enjoy quoits? Wondering what to do with your horse’s used shoes? There’s an official lawn game called Horseshoes, which is played with either two or four people. The aim is take turns at tossing horseshoes at stakes in the ground, and trying to either encircle the stake or get as close as you can. There’s an official governing body, the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association, and the sport has a long history, dating from the 12th century. Rather more recently, George W Bush was an avid player.

    11. The patron saint of blacksmiths (and vets and horses) is St Eligius. The story goes that Eligius was a goldsmith in sixth-century France before he was a saint. He is said to have been visited by Christ in the form of a traveller with a horse needing shoeing. Somehow, Eligius managed to chop off one hoof – some folklore says the horse was demon-possessed — then made the three-legged creature a golden shoe and the “traveller” miraculously reattached the amputated appendage. Eligius’ saint’s day is 1 December and by tradition, no Catholic farriers will shoe on that day, enjoying a festive party instead and hopefully a few tips from their clients.

    12. From Catholic saints to the humble local, horseshoes are an ever-present feature. According to Pubs Galore, there are 100 pubs with the name Three Horseshoes in the UK, which ranks it 43rd in terms of popularity. Fifty-two are named simply Horseshoes, ranking 93rd. The White Horse is the most common equine moniker (eighth), preferred to the Black Horse at 19th. If you’re keen on the shoeing connection, Blacksmiths Arms pips Horseshoes, with 55 pubs bearing that name. Horseshoes were a necessary feature of travelling back in the days when people used public houses as stopovers for their horses, so it’s a fitting name. Why three horseshoes rather than four? The Worshipful Company of Farriers’ coat of arms depicts three horseshoes to illustrate their trade, and dates back to 1356.

    Whether you’re superstitious, religious, a history buff or up for a new game to play on your lawn, there’s a lot more to the horseshoe than simply protecting a horse’s hooves.

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