Old horseshoes

Dating Old Horseshoes (Is it Old and Lucky?)

Dating horseshoes is a challenge for archaeologists and metal detector enthusiasts. The main reason is that ancient horseshoes do not have many characteristics to tell their age. However, horseshoes are a huge part of history, so dating them is extremely essential.

You can date a horseshoe through its characteristics. As horseshoes evolved, they developed characteristics that can tell what period they were made. The shape, number of nail holes, and metal used are some identifiers of a horseshoe’s age.

How To Tell If Your Horseshoe Is Old?

Horseshoes are among the most common artifacts from the colonial and pre-colonial periods. While the methods archaeologists use for dating horseshoes have leaped throughout time, there is still no precise way to date a horseshoe. Still, archaeologists continue to find ways to date horseshoes as they can help in understanding the extent of road transport during ancient times.

However, it is not only the archaeologists interested in old horseshoes. Metal detector enthusiasts often target this piece of metal when metal detecting. There is a belief that old horseshoes bring luck when carried as a talisman. So, if you happen to find a horseshoe, here is how you can tell if they are old:

Searching for Treasure with a Metal Detector
Searching for Treasure with a Metal Detector

Identifiers When Dating Horseshoes

1. Metal Used

Chinese blacksmiths used iron for making horseshoes during 938 AD. Bronze was also one of the most popular used for creating horseshoes among blacksmiths outside China. Blacksmiths forge them by hand one by one. As a result, each horseshoe made back then had are not identical in shape. They also do not have serial numbers or branding, unlike modern horseshoes.

In addition, old horseshoes vary in size, depending on the breed of horse that used them. The shoes are also generally thick and heavy.

2. The Number of Nail Holes in the Horseshoe

Ivor Noel Hume, a British-born archaeologist, described old horseshoes in his book A Guide To Artifacts Of Colonial America. According to Hume, blacksmiths first made fullered horseshoes before 1660. He added that horseshoes made in the 17th century have inward heels and may have:

  • six nail holes placed equally on each of the horseshoe’s branches
  • seven nail holes – three holes placed on one of the horseshoe’s branches and four on the other.

On the other hand, 18th-century horseshoes have three to ten holes on each branch.

3. The Presence of a Toe Clip

Horseshoes created after 1850 have toe clips, a metal tab that helps date horseshoes. Farrier Mike Poe is a former clinician at the New Mexico Professional Horseshoers’ Association’s clinic. According to him, a horseshoe’s toe clip stabilizes it, thus improving the connection between the shoes and the hoof.

If you find a horseshoe with a metal tab protruding upward, chances are it was an old horseshoe from post-1850. (source)

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4. Examining the Horseshoe

Apart from knowing what an old horseshoe looks like, there are tests that you can conduct to confirm that they are ancient. You can perform a spark test, but you must note that it will cause minor damage to the horseshoe.

To do the spark test, get an angle grinder and use it on the horseshoe that you found. Old horseshoes, particularly the ones wrought during the 19th century, have dull red sparks. If you find a horseshoe made in modern times, its high carbon content will result in bright white sparks. That said, you need to look for pale sparks when dating horseshoes.

You can also examine the corrosion of the old horseshoe you found. Old horseshoes have their iron content rusted away, resulting in the exposure of iron silicate. If your horseshoe came from ancient times, it should have a grainy appearance that resembles rotting wood. (source)

Are Old Horseshoes Lucky?

How old is this horseshoe
How old is this horseshoe

People hung horseshoes on their front doors during the old times. They believe horseshoes attract good luck to the people living in the house with a horseshoe hung outside. There are also several superstitions surrounding old horseshoes.

People thought that blacksmiths had special powers

Blacksmiths worked with iron and elemental fire when forging horseshoes. For this reason, people thought that they had special powers. People also viewed the vast trade for horseshoes as lucky, which further solidified their belief.

Additionally, ancient communities thought that blacksmiths had the power to heal the sick. Since they work with horses, they have power, so people believe that the horseshoes they make bring fortune. (source)

Upside down or not?

The way people hang horseshoes also has different meanings. A horseshoe hanging with the ends of its branches pointing upwards means good luck. The reason is that the U shape of the shoe resembles a container that gathers fortune. Meanwhile, a horseshoe hung downwards brings terrible luck as its inverted shape means luck will fall out.

So, after dating the horseshoes you found, you may want to hang them upwards on your door if you believe in superstitions. (source)

Seven nail holes

Many people from ancient times consider the number seven a lucky number. As mentioned, some old horseshoes have seven nail holes. Another reason there is a massive belief is that horseshoes bring good luck.

Dating Horseshoes by Shape

As mentioned, dating horseshoes involve looking at its:

  • metals used
  • number of hail holes
  • toe clips

You can also date a horseshoe through its corrosion or spark testing. However, one more characteristic can tell you how old a horseshoe is – its shape.

Horseshoes evolved throughout the years; therefore, their shape changed as they evolved. For this reason, looking at the shape of an old horseshoe you found may help you figure out what year it came from.

Below are the shoe shapes you need to know when dating horseshoes.

The Romans’ Hipposandals

There are three types of hipposandals. Each type has differences, such as the hooks used for holding them in place. However, all three types of hipposandals have the same shape.

Hipposandals have an oval-shaped iron plate with a round opening at its center. The iron plate has two to four clips rising from the sides or back, depending on the hipposandal’s type.

These clips allow horse owners can tie the hipposandals into the animal’s hooves.

Nailed Horseshoes

The early nailed horseshoes have a corrugated or wavy pattern on their rims. They are oval-shaped, with six circular nail holes within the horseshoe’s indentations. These early nailed horseshoes also used fiddle-head nails. Suppose you are dating horseshoes, and you find that one of them has a flat upper surface and a rounded lower one. In that case, it is likely an early nailed horseshoe from the 11th to 14th century.

Additionally, the early horseshoes that utilized nail holes were about ⅓ to ½ inches thick. They also have broad and open heels that are thin on the ends.

On the other hand, the later models of the 14th century nailed horseshoes do not have wavy rims. The rounded nail holes became square and increased to seven holes. Blacksmiths and horse owners also replaced the fiddle-headed nails with T-shaped square-sectioned nails.

Later nailed horseshoes have their heels closer together with the branches longer than the early model.

The Guildhall Horseshoes

The Guildhall horseshoes became common in the 11th to 16th centuries. They have a rounded outer edge, and the ones made before the 16th century have an arched inner edge. These shoes also have long branches and heels angled together. Similar to the early nailed horseshoes, the Guildhall horseshoes have six square-shaped nail holes.

These shoes also have a flatter and broader design than those made in the earlier periods.

The Dove Horseshoes

This type of horseshoes became common during the same period as the Guildhall shoes. The dove horseshoes have a rounded shape on their inner and outer edges. They have seven nail holes, six on one branch and four on the other.

The Keyhole Horseshoes

The keyhole-shaped horseshoes date back to the mid-16th century up to the 18th century. When dating horseshoes, it is worth noting that the keyhole shoes from the mid-16th century are the first fullered shoes ever to exist. Meanwhile, horseshoes from the 1700s have a groove that extends from one branch to another.

These horseshoes also have four nail holes on each branch, with the ones from the 1700s reaching ten nail holes in total. Even keyhole shoes have 20 nail holes made by the end of the 18th century. These horseshoes also have a convex surface on the underside and a concave surface by the hooves.

Moreover, keyhole shoes have square-cut heels.

The Tongue-Type Horseshoes

The keyhole shoes only lasted until the end of the 18th century. Along with the keyhole shoes, tongue-type horseshoes became common in the 17th century until 1815. These shoes have a U-shaped inner edge that resembles the human tongue, hence the name. They also have gradually thinning calkins and heels with a wide gap.

The Toe Clip and Rim Shoes

You may encounter shoes with toe clips and rims when dating horseshoes. Such shoes came from the 19th and 20th centuries. Blacksmiths retained the tongue shape of the shoes in the early 19th century. This shape became rounder when the mid-19th century came.

Moreover, blacksmiths added toe-clip to the shoes somewhere between 1825 to 1830. The original toe clip evolved and became a bar toe clip used from 1880 to 1930. Blacksmiths made the bar toe clip for heavier shoes.

Similar to the keyhole horseshoes, toe clips and rim shoes have a convex lower surface and a concave upper surface. The nails used for these shoes are all round, with each shoe reaching18 to 20 holes.

Finally, tongue-shaped shoes evolved into rim-type horseshoes. (source)

Are Old Horseshoes Worth Anything?

Displaying old horseshoes
Displaying old horseshoes

There is a market for vintage horseshoes. However, the market for other vintage items like furniture is not as large as the market. Some people sell old horseshoes online. People who like collecting items with ancient history purchase horseshoes and add them to their collections. On the other hand, some individuals purchase horseshoes due to their superstitious belief that they bring good luck.

So, after dating horseshoes that you found while metal detecting, you can put them up for sale to make them valuable. If you are passionate about metal detecting, you will likely find several horseshoes, thus increasing the monetary value you will gain.

Moreover, horseshoes were more valuable in the ancient period. While dating horseshoes is vital in modern times, ancient people also considered horseshoes as highly valuable items. Before bronze, blacksmiths used iron for making horseshoes. Since iron is expensive, worn-out horseshoes were re-melted to make new horseshoes. Some people also say that people in the old times used horseshoes in lieu of taxes. (source)

What Do Civil War Horseshoes Look Like?

Horses were a critical part of the Civil War. Soldiers used them on battlefields and rode them to get to different destinations. In fact, more horses died during the war than soldiers.

Besides carrying soldiers, horses also provided a source of transportation for artillery. Cavalry units used horses to move from place to place when gathering information about their enemies.

Moreover, blacksmiths made thousands of horseshoes during the Civil War. In 1835, Henry Burden had already patented a horseshoe-making machine, making it easier to mass-produce horseshoes. Over the entire Civil War, blacksmiths used nine horseshoe-making machines, which enabled them to produce about 50 million horseshoes.

What A Civil War Horseshoe Looks Like

Burden’s factory, called Henry Burden & Sons, became the supplier of horseshoes at the beginning of the Civil War. He used hot iron bars cut and pressed into shape to make the horseshoes. Pressing the horseshoes multiple times gave them a thin inner edge and thick heels. The horseshoes also have grooves and nail holes, although there is no clear record of how many nails each shoe requires.

But if the old shoe archaeologists examined when dating horseshoes had six to 10 nail holes, the Civil War horseshoes likely used a similar number. The horseshoes used during the Civil War also had perfectly smooth edges. (source)

How Horseshoes Evolved

Blacksmiths invented horseshoes out of pure necessity. No one knows when people from ancient times began domestication horses. But as soon as they did, they knew they needed to protect their domesticated horse’s feet, especially when the horse needed to travel miles. By making horses wear metal shoes, they are safe from sharp objects and hoof damage caused by excessive running.

Moreover, knowing how these shoes evolved is essential for people fond of dating horseshoes and collecting them.

The Birth of Hipposandals

People did not always use metal to make horseshoes. The earliest horseshoes people utilized were the hipposandals. Archaeologists who were dating horseshoes found out that the Romans invented these shoes around 400 BC. But the Romans used woven plants instead of metals like iron and bronze to make the shoes.

Hipposandals were soft, so they soothed the horses’ hooves while protecting them.

The First Nailed Horseshoe

In 1000 AD, people from Northern Europe found horses find it difficult to grip terrains during wet and cold climates. As a result, they utilized nailing metal horseshoes into their horses’ hooves. It paved the way for the craft of creating and nailing horseshoes used by people until today.

The Early-Nailed Horseshoes

Bronze was one of the popular metals used for making nailed horseshoes in the early times. These shoes had six nail holes and corrugated outer rims. They also had a broader and heavier structure than the first horseshoes used in Northern Europe.

Moreover, horseshoes became a commodity during the 14th century. Blacksmiths from medieval Europe began crafting and selling these shoes in large quantities. Horseshoes also became legal tender used to either purchase goods or pay off debts. Blacksmiths also designed specialized shoes used for other horse works apart from transportation.

That said, if you are dating horseshoes and find one made of bronze, chances are they came from medieval Europe in the 14th century.

The Burden Horseshoe Machine and the Civil War

Horseshoe production reached its peak when the Industrial Revolution happened. Machines for horseshoe mass production became popular in the 1800s. And in 1835, Burden patented his first horseshoe-making machine. This machine can create 60 shoes every hour.

In addition, Burden’s machine became of great help when the Civil War began. As mentioned, American soldiers heavily used horses for battles and transportation, requiring millions of shoes until the end of the war in the 1860s.

The Equestrian and Modern Horseshoes

Horse riding became a sport after the American Civil War. At the beginning of the 1900s, equestrian horseshoes met a stable market of people who were fond of the said sport. Horse riding also paved the way for horseshoes’ modernization.

Moreover, steel and aluminum were the most common metals used for making modern horseshoes. Steel horseshoes are cheaper and more durable than aluminum ones. Horseshoes made from steel also allow horses to flex their leg joints better.

On the other hand, aluminum horseshoes provide the animals with a better sweeping action. When dating horseshoes, it is worth noting that the steel and aluminum ones likely came from the 19th century and modern times. (source)

Metal Detectorist Recap

People began using horseshoes as early as 400 BC. These shoes evolved until they became the modern horseshoes used today. That said, dating horseshoes is essential to understand how people used these shoes and how they evolved into the horseshoes that we know today.

Moreover, horseshoes are not as valuable as other vintage collection items like jewelry and furniture. However, legends say they bring good luck, especially when you hang them on your door.

If you have questions or suggestions about this article, please feel free to reach us via the comments section!

If you’d like more articles about metal detecting check out the links below.


David Humphries, Writer and Creator of METAL DETECTING TIPS. After borrowing my son’s detector and finding $.25. I felt like a treasure hunter. FREE MONEY! I was seriously bitten by the metal detecting bug.

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