For centuries, the iron horseshoe has been considered an amulet. That is, it is believed to possess the power to protect. Such a belief is found in nearly every country where horses are used.
No one knows why or when such an idea arose. Some researchers think it’s because blacksmiths, who make horseshoes, have traditionally been thought to possess supernatural powers. This belief came about because blacksmiths have always worked with two mysterious substances — fire and iron. Iron was considered a “magic” metal, and fire was a gift from the gods.
A second suggestion concerns horses themselves. Since they were once worshipped as sacred animals, it followed that iron horseshoes made specifically for these holy beasts, were themselves a power against evil.
A third idea involves the horseshoe’s shape — a crescent, like an emerging moon. This shape became linked with life, not death.
Horseshoes were invented by ancient Romans, but most connected superstitions came long after those Romans. In the 17th century, John Aubrey wrote, “A horseshoe nailed on the threshold of the door (prevents) the power of witches to come into your house.”
During that same time, a popular greeting was, “May the horseshoe ne’er be pulled from your threshold.”
Horseshoe superstition reached beyond personal dwellings. Farmers hung them above their horses’ stalls or nailed them to stable doors to keep evil spirits from riding the animals at night and wearing them out, which is an activity known as ‘hag-riding.’
These iron shoes were carried to sea where sailors nailed them to masts to avoid storms and shipwrecks. British naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) affixed a horseshoe to the mast of his ship, HMS Victory.
Witches once got blamed for most misfortune. If butter wouldn’t come during churning, it was believed the churn was bewitched. The solution was for the dairymaid to place a heated horseshoe in the churn.
As protection against the evil of witches, people, especially fashionable types who had never learned the Lord’s Prayer, were advised to lock themselves in their houses and to nail a horseshoe to the threshold.
Such superstitions weren’t confined to Britain. In Silesia, three shoes were fastened above barn doors on April 30, May Day Eve (Walpurgis Night) because this was when witches rode to their Sabbath.
In Morocco, an impotent man was thought to be cursed. He was supposed to write a charm on an old horseshoe, then take it to a blacksmith. The smithy would heat the shoe before dipping it in water. If the man drank this water for seven days, the curse would be lifted.
Germans cured whooping cough by feeding afflicted children from a plate branded by a hot horseshoe.
Today, we’re still superstitious about horseshoes, but we seem to have forgotten curses and evil. We’re advised these days to affix a horseshoe with both ends pointing upward so good luck won’t drain out through the open part. There’s no mention of witchcraft or other evil spirits at work.
Also, horseshoes are nailed above doorways today, not on the threshold.
People are strange. Customs regarding horseshoes have undergone changes, but the shoe is still considered an amulet.