Why Horses Are Measured In Hands: Horse Hand Unit Guide

Why Are Horses Measured in Hands?

Over the last several thousand years, units of measurements have changed, except when it comes to measuring horses. Horses are described using the unit of measurement deemed “hands,” and that has not changed throughout history according to ancient descriptions of measuring horses. 

Why are horses measured in hands? Thousands of years ago, there were no measuring tapes lying around (or a metric system, for that matter). People needed a way of measuring their riding horses for purposes of selling and trading, and so they used a unit of measurement that they always had with them – their hands. This unit of measurement was standardized in the 1500s as one hand equals four inches, and has been used ever since. 

Continue reading for a history of the hands unit of measurement, and how to measure your own horse.

A History of Using Hands to Measure Horses

Ancient Egyptians used a unit of measurement called cubits, which is one of the earliest forms of measurement that we have on record. Cubits were the length of a man’s arm, from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. as a simple, understandable practice, ancient societies used parts of their bodies to measure things. There are records of Egyptians using their hands, or the distance from their thumbs to the pinky finger, as a way of measuring horses for trading purposes, which is where the unit of hands likely originated.

Of course, this is not an entirely accurate way of depicting height, as every man’s hands are a different size. This was a recognized problem, so in the 1500s King Henry VIII standardized the hand to equal exactly 4 inches, which is what we still use to measure a horse’s height today.

How To Measure A Horse In Hands

While many experienced equestrians can guess a horse’s height in hands by sight with some degree of accuracy, it is important to properly measure your horse for purposes of registering, showing, sporting, and selling. So how do you go about measuring your horse in hands? 

Where to Measure Your Horse for Height

A horse is measured from the ground to the withers, or the shoulders. This is the most stable point of the horse’s body. It would be impossible to measure a horse from the ground to the top of the head because the horse’s head is mobile, meaning that a height measured to the top of the head can change when the horse raises or lowers its head.

The withers are the tallest “stationary” point of the horse. If a horse has its nose to the ground, for example, the withers will be the highest point on the horse’s body. 

When you are ready to measure your horse, bring him to an area of flat ground so that he is standing on a level surface, adding more accuracy to your measurement.

Horse Measuring Tools

You can use a measuring tape to measure your horse, but it may be tricky to handle both your horse and a measuring tape. The easiest way to measure your horse is with a measuring stick, which you can purchase online or at any tack store. Measuring sticks for horses are rigid and have a bar at the top that can slide up or down. The purpose of the bar is to place it on top of the withers – the bar will stay in position to “mark” your measurement. Measuring sticks may also have inches and other units of measurements marked on them for easy conversion if you are wishing to know how many inches or centimeters your horse stands.

Once you have your horse on a level spot of ground, tied or held by you, you will place the measuring stick as close to the front of the withers as possible. Once you are in position, slide the bar up and rest it onto the withers. Where it rests is your measurement – this is how tall your horse is.

For a complete breakdown of how to measure a horse in hands, check out my article How to Measure a Horse’s Height (Step-by-Step With Pictures.)

Horse/Pony Height Measurements

A pony is not simply a small or baby horse – there are specific height restrictions a small horse must meet in order to be considered a pony. A horse that measures in at 14.2 hands high or less is considered a pony. If a horse measures over 14.2 hands, it is a horse. 

Does Everyone Measure Horses in Hands?

Hands are the proper unit of measurement for horses in most English-speaking countries, however, some European countries in addition to the Federal Equestrian International (FEI), use meters to measure horses. Australia, Canada, the United States, Ireland, and Great Britain are some examples of countries that use hands for horse measurement.

Are Hands Used to Measure Other Animals Besides Horses?

Interestingly, the unit of hands is not used to measure any other animal but horses. Why have we converted to other units of measurement for everything else, yet still use hands for measuring horses? Because nothing else is measured this way, and there are tools today that will make measuring in any form a simple task, it is only fair to assume that we continue to use hands to measure horses today simply because of tradition. Horsemanship is a sport that is filled with tradition, and we will likely be measuring horses in hands in another few thousand years as well!

Are Hands Fractioned?

Horses do not grow in 4-inch increments, so you will see a horse described as “15.1” hands or “16.2” hands. These are not traditional decimals. For example, a horse that is 16 and a half hands will not be described as “16.5” hands. The number after the period equals inches. This means that a horse that is 16 and a half hands will be written as “16.2” hands (literally, 16 hands plus 2 inches). A 15.1 hand horse will have a measurement of 15 hands plus 1 inch. Since each hand equals 4 inches, you will not see a horse measured at “15.4” or “15.6” hands, as a horse that measures 15 hands plus 4 inches will be recorded as 16 hands. 

Terminology of Horse Measurements

Most equestrians will not call a horse a “sixteen point two” hand horse, but rather you will hear “sixteen-two” or “fifteen-two”. You may even hear this as a noun, as in “we have a sixteen-two available at auction”. Speaking of terminology – when you see “hh” after the unit of measurement, this stands for “hands high”. In written form, a horse will be measured as “16.2 hh”, which means 16.2 “hands high”.

What Is The Tallest Horse Breed?

There are hundreds of horse breeds in the world, but the Shire is on average the largest of horse breeds. Shire stallions must measure at least 17 hh to be registered as a Shire, while the tallest recorded Shire was measured at 21.25 hands in the 19th century (and weighed 3,360 pounds!). 

Draft breeds of horses are the largest in the horse world and include the Shire, the Clydesdale, the Belgian, and the Percheron. Draft horses are workhorses and are used to pull heavy loads, so strength and size play a big role in their use. Draft horses can be ridden; however, they oftentimes do not have the stamina or athleticism as other light horse breeds.

Want to learn more about draft horses? Check out my article Top 8 Biggest Horses & Horse Breeds (With Pictures.)

What Is The Smallest Horse Breed?

The smallest horse breed in the world is the Falabella, which stands on average 6 to 7 hands high, or 21 to 34 inches (measurements of miniature horses are often referred to in inches because of their small stature). Interestingly, a Falabella’s body is proportioned like that of a horse, and not a typical pony.

The smallest horse on record, a dwarf miniature horse, measured at 17 inches tall, or 4 hands high, and weighed just 57 pounds. She was born in 2001 and lived to be 17 years old. Her name was Thumbelina. 

Average Height of a Horse

What is the average height of a horse? This varies greatly by breed. The average Mustang, or wild horse, measures in at 14 to 15 hands high. Thoroughbreds, bred for racing, measure on average 15.2 to 17 hands, while the Clydesdale, a common draft horse breed, measures in at 16 to 18 hands high. American Quarter Horses have a wider range of “normal,” and typically measure anywhere between 14 and 16 hands high.

Best Height For a Riding Horse

When deciding what size horse is best for riding, it is important to take into account the size of the rider. You will hear varying opinions on how much weight a horse can carry, but most agree it is between 10% and 20% of the horse’s own body weight (though 20% is on the high side). For example, a healthy 16 hh quarter horse that is 1300 pounds and in his prime should safely be able to carry a rider of up to 130 pounds to 250 pounds. Most riding horses will be between 14.2 and 17 hh, though smaller riders and children can safely ride ponies of smaller stature.

Hands: A Unit of Measurement Here to Stay

As said earlier, the equestrian world is a deeply traditional one, and the unit of hands will likely not be phased out in the near future. Hands are an ancient and convenient way to measure horses, have been used for thousands of years, and may be used for centuries to come.


To learn more about what size horse you need, visit my article What Size Horse Do I Need: Beginner’s Guide.


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