What is the Average Height of a Horse?
There is a significant range in height when speaking of horse measurements. Within this unique species you might find a 40-inch Shetland Pony or an 18 hh (72-inch) Clydesdale. If you are interested in riding, or in horses in general, you may be wondering what the average height of a horse is, and how they are measured.
What is the average height of a horse? While it is impossible to give an exact average among the thousands of horses in the world, the average riding horse is estimated to stand at 15 – 15.2 hands high. This number will vary according to discipline, however. For example, the average racing Thoroughbred will stand around 16 hands high.
Because horses are not measured using standard units of measurement, it can be challenging to get an understanding of a horse’s true height. Read on to learn more about the average height of a horse, how horses are measured, and when a horse is finished growing.
How Tall Are Most Riding Horses?
Determining the average height of a horse can be challenging due to the large variation in horse height. A horse can be as small as 30 inches in height (at this diminutive stature, horses are measured in inches instead of hands), or as tall as a 19 hh draft horse. For the purposes of answering the question of average height, then, we will look specifically at riding horses.
Small ponies are ridden regularly, but usually only by young children. And while a large draft horse can be ridden, they are more commonly used to pull carriages and to work on farms. So when looking at the average height for a (typical) riding horse, this narrows our frame quite a bit. Most riding horses will stand between 14.2 and 16.2 hands high, with 15 to 15.2 hands high being close to the average for a riding horse used for pleasure or leisure riding.
Average Height of a Horse Will Vary Depending On Discipline
When looking at different equestrian sports, you may see a higher or lower height average. Many breeds have been carefully designed with a specific sport in mind.
Thoroughbreds are probably the most obvious example of this – Thoroughbreds are a specialized breed and have been bred over the years to outperform other horses on the racetrack. A successful racing horse will have long legs to allow for larger strides. These long legs increase the overall height of the horse, with the Thoroughbred’s ideal (and average) height being 16 hh.
Likewise, horses bred for jumping will have light, tall frames – the longer their legs, the easier it will be to clear high-level jumps. Dutch Warmbloods are commonly referred to as the best breed for jumping, and were originally developed by crossing native draft breeds with the Thoroughbred before being further crossed with other sport breeds. The average height of a Dutch Warmblood will be 16 to 16.2 hh.
If you look at most popular Western sports however, such as reining and barrel racing, you will find smaller horses, as shorter legs reign supreme in these disciplines. American Quarter Horses are often considered the breed of choice for most Western sports. Reining, barrel racing, and several other sports involve high speeds with quick turns and pivots. In this world, the Quarter Horse’s short legs give it an advantage over taller horses. The average height of a Quarter Horse is 14.2 to 16 hh, with 14.2 to 15 hh being most common in competitions.
How Is A Horse’s Height Measured?
A horse is measured in hands – this is a unit of measurement equal to four inches. As far as historians can tell, horses have always been measured in hands, with early records showing that ancient Egyptians used the distance from their thumbs to their last fingers to measure horses for trading (which may just be where we got the term “hands”). In the 1500’s King Henry VIII standardized this unit of measurement as equaling exactly four inches, to accommodate for the fact that an individual human hand is not an accurate method of measuring. Interestingly, this unit of measurement applies strictly to horses today – the most compelling reasoning being simply that equestrians are nothing if not traditional.
To get a step-by-step walkthrough of how to measure a horse, visit my article How to Measure a Horse’s Height (Step-By-Step With Pictures.)
Horses Are Measured From The Ground To The Withers
When humans are measured, we are measured from the ground to the tops of our heads. This tells us our true height. On the other hand, horses are measured to the tops of their shoulders (otherwise known as the withers).When you measure, or “tape,” a horse, you will likely use a measuring stick, which is a long and rigid ruler with a bar at the top. This bar is adjustable and will rest at the top of the horse’s withers so that you can get an accurate measurement.
Why isn’t a horse’s head and neck included in this measurement? The simple answer is because they are too mobile. When a human stands tall, there is really only one position in which the head rests. A horse’s anatomy is much different – horses can hold their necks high and proud, they can hold their neck relaxed and parallel to the ground, or they can hold their necks low so that they can graze at the ground. There is no way to accurately measure a horse’s height at the top of his head, as he will give you a different measurement each time you try.
When Can You Measure A Horse?
You can measure a horse at any time, however, to document a horse’s mature height you will need to wait until he or she is finished growing. Most horses are finished growing between 4 and 6 years of age, with larger draft breeds continuing to grow until they are 7 or 8 years of age. Horses are still considered “colts” (young males) or “fillies” (young females) until they are 4 years old.
Height Difference Between Horses And Ponies
If you are new to horses, you might think that a pony is a baby horse. This isn’t true – a baby horse is called a foal. Or, you might think that a pony is a different species than a horse. This also is not factual – both ponies and horses are of the same species, called “Equus”. While ponies and horses are of the same species, they are distinctly different, and that difference is in height.
A pony is an animal of the Equus species (or, horse, as a looser term) that is 14.2 hands high or shorter. A horse is 14.3 hands high or taller. There is a wide variety when it comes to horse height, often even within the same breed of horse. It is therefore possible to have two purebred, registered horses of the same breed, with one being considered a horse and the other considered a pony due to their individual heights.
Extreme Horse Heights
With the heights of horses having such a large spectrum, you will find extremes on both ends. When you look at height records within this unique species, you can find horses that are sized more like pet dogs, as well as horses that are as large as a small elephant.
The smallest breed of horse is the Falabella. Falabellas stand on average 21 to 34 inches at the withers, or 6 to 7 hh, for comparison’s sake. One unique fact about the Falabella is that it is not proportioned like a typical pony, but is instead proportioned like a taller riding horse. The smallest horse on record is a mare named Thumbelina, and matured at 17 inches tall (or 4.1 hh) and weighed just 57 pounds. When Thumbelina was born, she was a mere 6 inches tall. She was born in 2001 and lived to be 17; during her life she worked as a therapy animal for children experiencing both physical and emotional trauma.
The largest breed of horse is the Shire. Shires measure on average 17.2 hh, with a Shire stallion unable to register if less than 17 hh. The tallest horse on record is a shire gelding named Sampson (also known as Mammoth). Sampson was born in 1846 in the UK, and was measured at an astonishing 21.25 hh. To give you a better understanding of just how large this horse was, he weighed a staggering 3,359 pounds. An average American Quarter Horse, for comparison, will weigh between 950 and 1,200 pounds.
Horse Height Varies Among Breeds
There are hundreds of horse breeds, and almost all of them were created with a particular goal and discipline in mind. For this reason, the average height of a riding horse has been dictated by man, and will continue to evolve as the needs of humans change. For years, horses were used primarily for farming, and so heavy, large-boned horses were more popular. Today, most horses are bred for either equestrian sports or pleasure riding, and their build and height will reflect these specialized needs. From the smallest pony to the largest draft horse, horses and humans have a unique bond, and as humans evolve, so will our horses.
If you want to get the full history of why horses are measured in hands, visit my article Why Horses Are Measured in Hands: Horse Hand Unit Guide.