Pahrump women break the glass ceiling by pitching horseshoes through it

Updated September 14, 2018 - 8:15 am

There’s nothing about horseshoes that suggests it should be a male-dominated activity.

Perhaps it’s the mental image of the game: a backyard picnic with the men guzzling cans of cheap beer while pitching horseshoes while the womenfolk tend to the vittles before the men have to start grilling. Or maybe it’s the thought of frail, helpless women struggling in vain to toss a horseshoe, all 2.5 pounds of it, about 30 feet.

If that sounds silly to you, the notion that only three of 15 competitors at the Shade Tree Open, a horseshoes tournament officially sanctioned by the National Horseshoe Pitching Association — you didn’t know that was a thing, did you? — that was held in August at Petrack Park in Pahrump, were female sounds silly to Rachelle Ryba.

“I like that men and women can compete in a sport, and it’s equal,” said Ryba, who finished fourth in the C Division at that tournament. “I can take on one of these guys who is really good, and if I’m having a good day, I can beat him. That makes me feel very good.”

Mike Norton, the secretary/treasurer of the Nevada State Horseshoe Pitchers Association and the organizer of Pahrump tournaments, said women have shown they can compete.

“We have some good female Nevada players,” he said. “Alison Breeden (of Carson City), Carol Lanfair (of Gardnerville), Marie Williams (of Schurz) are all close to 50 percent, one ringer out of two shoes. I can’t do it. At State, I think the women’s division was the most competitive.”

Although men and women compete against each other throughout the season, there is an accommodation made for women, whether Ryba likes it or not.

“Females can stand at the front line, that’s a 30-foot line,” she explained. “Males are from the 40-foot line. It is my goal to shoot from behind the 40-foot line. I want to shoot like the guys, because if I beat a guy I want to beat him fair and square on his own terms.”

That doesn’t mean beating a guy isn’t fun even with the 10-foot difference. Just ask Stacie Nicosia.

Nicosia won the C Division at the Shade Tree Open. (Divisions are created by ranking the pitchers by their percentage of ringers going into an event.) She won the division on a tiebreaker, because she totaled nine more points during her four games than the other competitor, who also went 3-1 during the tournament.

That would be her husband, Mike. And the reason they ended in a tie is because Stacie defeated Mike 22-16 during round-robin play. And Mike has nobody to blame but himself for Stacie’s participation.

“It was something to do with my husband,” said Stacie, who has been married for 26 years. “He had been doing it for a while. He’s the one that maintains the pits. I used to come and watch and support, but spouses have to do things together, and this is a sport we can do together.”

But what about beating him head to head, and then beating him out for the division title?

“It doesn’t usually happen,” Stacie said. “He probably let me win.”

Whether that’s true or not, the news of Stacie’s victory delighted the third female in the competition, Kim Bradshaw.

“For real? Awesome,” was Bradshaw’s reaction, giggling like a little kid. “I bet he wasn’t very happy.”

Bradshaw is the most accomplished of the three female members of the Pahrump Dust Devils, as the group is known. Bradshaw won the Saddle West Open earlier this summer, beating Shade Tree Open champ Bo Anders in a playoff.

“Kim is by far the best female thrower we have,” Ryba said. “She’s really good.”

“I just showed up one night when they were pitching,” Bradshaw recalled. “I knew they did, but didn’t know when.”

Ryba, on the other hand, was brought into the fold by her boyfriend, Dok Hembree.

“He brought me up here,” Ryba recalled. “I had no idea the horseshoe pits were here or that any of this went on. They welcomed me with open arms, taught me how to play, someone sold me a set of horseshoes, and I’ve been playing ever since.

“We go all over. We went to Tonopah, and Dok and I took second place in doubles. So I got my first trophy ever. I love playing doubles, so he can pick up what I can’t.”

Hembree also got Ryba into playing golf. Before they met, she jokes, “Pool was my idea of a sport.”

Not so for Bradshaw, who has played a lot of softball over the years. But her athletic pursuits were curtailed for a while because of a knee replacement, which might have something to do with the fact she has no interest in pitching from the men’s line with Ryba.

“There’s no way I could pitch from back there,” Bradshaw said. “But 30-footers? No problem.”

Bradshaw often comes out ahead in battles of the sexes, which she admits was a problem early on before other pitchers got used to how good she was.

“Sometimes, if we were just practicing, I would have to let them win,” she remembers. “But if I let them win the first time, then they didn’t care if they got beat. A few times, I have thrown a game.

“Then I decided, why should I hold off? If I’m good, I’m good. Today, I was average.”

Average for Bradshaw is finishing third in the A Division, splitting four games against the pitchers with the highest ringer percentages. Her 53 ringers were better than 12 of the 14 other pitchers in the tournament. Average.

All three of the women are enthusiastic when talking about why they enjoy horseshoes.

“Meeting new people, and the friends you make out here,” Bradshaw said.

“Horseshoe people are the greatest people on earth,” Ryba said. “They are so supportive. You’ve seen me throw, I’m not that good, but they all support me; ‘try this, do this.’ They all try and help me improve my game. Everyone here is friends.”

Nicosia agreed, then added something else.

“The people, and it’s exercise,” she said. “People don’t think that it’s exercise, but it’s definitely exercise. My arm feels good, but my back hurts. You’ve got the weight all on one side all the time, and you have to try and keep yourself straight, so it does do a number on your back.”

“Right now, not bad,” Bradshaw said about how she felt after the tournament. “But tomorrow I’ll feel it. Always the next day you feel it in your legs and in your arm.”

“Plus there’s the walking,” Nicosia added. In horseshoes, competitors throw two shoes at a time, then walk to the other end of the pit, collect the shoes and throw the other way. In a tournament, that easily could mean 80 or 100 trips back and forth. It adds up.

But it’s still a good time, and Ryba would love to see more women come out to the Petrack Park horseshoe pits and give it a shot.

“It’s all different kinds of people playing one another,” she said. “Whoever thought I would be playing a world champ? I mean I lost, but it was great to be able to play with him and hear his input. We had a great time.

“There’s not a lot of exposure for horseshoes, and I think it’s one of those sports you have to play to understand. Once you play, then you get it instantly.”

Contact Sports Editor Tom Rysinski at trysinski@pvtimes.com On Twitter:@pvtimes

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