A Mysterious Horse Shoe
It is one of our cultural beliefs that horseshoes are lucky. Almost everybody knows it. Many respect it. There is a cottage industry around it. Almost every “olde worlde” pub and inn in Europe displays one or more horseshoes. Almost anybody who has had contact with horses, and many who have not, keep a horseshoe on the mantle shelf, on a wall, or hanging on a door, myself included. Although skeptical about astrology, the Loch Ness monster, and leprechauns (to name but a few) I am today as capable of superstitious behaviour as anybody when it comes to horseshoes. Let me explain why.
One day in 1995 or 1996 I was clearing the junk out of my garage with the help of a local odd-job man, Bert, who had called by one day to see if I needed any assistance. After a couple or so years of neglect the garage was neck-high in newspapers, boxes, and various other recyclables. Bert and I set about the task and spent the better part of a morning cleaning it out very thoroughly.
Before Bert set off with a fully loaded van, he pointed to a rusty old horseshoe lying on the garage floor. I had not been consciously aware of it and, I presumed, the previous owners had left it there.
“Look,” Bert said, “what’s this doing on the ground? You should hang it up. It’ll bring you luck.”
I was surprised that Bert was taking this old rusty horseshoe quite so seriously, but, without further ado, Bert placed the horseshoe outside on the garage window sill next to the door.
That was the last I thought about the horseshoe for two or three years.
On Sunday, November 1, 1998, I was hurriedly tidying up my back garden. I noticed the horseshoe lying on the ground. It had fallen from its perch on the garage window ledge. I looked at it and hesitated for a few seconds, but decided not to pick it up, and left it on the ground. I remember thinking to myself, What on earth are you doing almost taking this silly lucky horseshoe stuff seriously!? As usual in those days, I was fairly busy. After sending off a batch of edited manuscripts to the next issue of the Journal of Health Psychology on Monday, giving a lecture to the fifth-year medical students at Cambridge University on Tuesday, I was off to Milan on Wednesday to visit two research project leaders in northern Italy.
I was accompanied by my colleague Catherine Sykes. Following the two visits, Catherine and I had spare day on Saturday, November 7, to do some sightseeing. We were staying in Breschia, and decided to take a train to nearby Verona to spend a few hours there before returning home to London.
A Mysterious Horse Show
After arriving at Verona train station, we discovered that the centre of the city was a bus ride away. We walked out of the station and across the plaza to a bus stop where an excited crowd of people, many of whom were foreign (i.e. non-Italian) were clearly in a hurry to go somewhere. Almost as soon as we arrived at the bus stop, a bus arrived and everybody crowded on, us included. Mistakenly we assumed the bus was going to the town centre. It was absolutely crammed full of people like sardines in a can. After a minute or two of pushing and shoving to get a position in the jam, we asked one of our fellow travellers where exactly the bus was going. “Why, to the horse show, of course!”
So here we were being swept along by a chance decision to a horse show in Verona that we didn’t know existed until that moment! The bus was absolutely buzzing with people excitedly anticipating what – for them, and also for me – was to be a very special event.
Rather than get off at the next stop, we decided to stay on board and see what all the fuss was about. It was, we discovered on arrival at the show grounds, the “100th Fieracavalli, Verona 5-8/11/98.” This was certainly no ordinary horse show.
We were directed to the entrance gate for foreign visitors to discover hundreds of people crowding around with their passports. All foreigners with valid passports were to be admitted free of charge. After a few minutes we managed to get to the front of the line and were given our admission tickets. We entered the stadium and found thousands of people walking around many dozens of stands and marquees with every imaginable equine thing on display. There were saddles, riding gear, horse feed, anything that horses and riders could possibly want. Catherine and I strolled around the park with no real sense about what to look for, deciding to spend an hour there and leave…
A Flying Horse Shoe
After a few minutes of exploration, we came to a large marquee. We could hear applause from an audience inside and we ventured in to find a few hundred people viewing a pony and rider contest from the tiered seating. We found some spare seats near the top of a tier in the second row from the back, and sat down. We observed a contest of skill and speed. Each pony and rider entered the arena and galloped at full speed around a small course marked out by posts, then raced to the exit. We watched three pony and rider teams. Then a fourth pony came into the arena and began its gallop through the course.
Suddenly, without warning, we became aware of a fast-spinning object flying through the air. In a split-second it became apparent that it was hurtling straight toward us. Catherine shouted out, instinctively I ducked, and like a huge bullet, the fast-flying object passed a few millimetres above my head. I felt its slip stream across my hair.
The object hit a man seated directly behind and above me squarely in the body. His wife screamed, but he was unharmed, the padding of his coat having protected him. It was a flying horseshoe!
Had I not quickly lowered my head beneath the horseshoe’s trajectory, I quite possibly would not have survived. At best I would have received a serious head injury. At worst it could have been fatal.
I thought immediately of the horseshoe lying in my garden. I had faltered over it but picked it up. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that I should have picked the horseshoe up and put it back where it belonged, on the windowsill.
We left the stadium is a state of mild shock. As we discussed the incident, the ‘take-home message’ was clear: Horse shoes are lucky. Handle with respect!
The next time I was in the garden I immediately put the horseshoe back ‘where it belonged’ – on the shed windowsill.
What would you have done?
We can calculate the odds of the flying horseshoe events as follows:
A) Find a horseshoe in the garden shed – 10 to the power -1 = 1/10
B) Find the horseshoe lying on the ground immediately before visiting Italy, faltering, and finally leaving it there – 10 to the power -2 = 1/100
C) Following a crowd on a bus in Verona – 10 to the power -1 = 1/10
D) Discovering the horse show — 10 to the power -2 = 1/100
E) Entering a particular marquee – 10 to the power -1 = 1/10
F) A horseshoe flying precisely toward me. There are 360 degrees horizontally and 360 half-degrees vertically – 1/(360 x 360) = 1/129600 = 1.3 x 10 to the power minus 5
The combined probability of above A – E, P = 1.3 x 10 to the power minus 12.
This represents odds of 1.3 in one million, million.
This coincidence was originally published in: Marks, D. F. (2000). The Psychology of the Psychic (2nd ed.), pages 248-250.