Skip to Content

Why Are Horses Measured in Hands: Unveiling the Mystery

Last updated: March 1, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Have you ever wondered why horses are measured in ‘hands’? This unique unit, equating to four inches, is a tradition rooted in practicality and history. With a lifelong passion for horses and as a current racehorse owner, I’ve come to appreciate this method’s simplicity and significance.

It’s crucial in contexts like racing, breeding, and equestrian sports for accurate and consistent horse measurement. In this article, we’ll delve into the origins and importance of this practice, offering insights for both seasoned equestrians and newcomers to the horse world.

Picture of a15 hand broodmare and her foal
15-hand broodmare and her foal

Why Measure Horses in Hands?

The tradition of measuring horses in hands, a practice as old as equestrianism itself, combines historical significance with practicality, remaining a vital standard in today’s horse management.

Measuring Horses in Hands is a Tradition

  • Ancient Practice: The tradition of using hands as a measurement for horses can be traced back to ancient Egypt and Rome, where horses were integral to daily life and warfare.
  • Universal Tool: The hand was used as a natural and readily available tool for measurement, ensuring everyone, regardless of location or background, could measure horses consistently.

It’s a Standard Unit of the Measurement

  • Establishing a Standard: The hand was officially standardized to 4 inches in the 16th century, bringing uniformity to horse measurement.
  • Key Influences: This standardization was influenced by horse-trading practices and the need for a common language in horse size description. Historical figures like King Henry VIII played a role in advocating for standard measurements in horse trading.

Using Hands to Measure Horses is Practical

  • Simplicity and Convenience: The hand method is simple and convenient, allowing for quick measurements without the need for specialized tools or equipment.
  • Accuracy and Dependability: Despite its simplicity, measuring in hands provides a surprisingly accurate and reliable way to gauge a horse’s size, which is crucial for fitting equipment like saddles and bridles.

The Hand Measurement Provides Consistency Across the Equestrian World

  • A Global Norm: The hand as a measurement unit is recognized and used in equestrian communities worldwide, from small farms to international horse shows.
  • Vital in Various Disciplines: This consistency is particularly important in horse racing, breeding, and trading, where precise measurements can influence decisions about training, health care, and sales. It ensures a level playing field in competitions and a common understanding in international trade.
Picture of a tall yearling.
15 hand Thoroughbred yearling.

The Role of Using ‘Hands’ to Measure Horses Today

In modern horse management, the use of ‘hands’ as a measurement continues to be a vital tool, deeply integrated into various aspects of care, training, and breeding. This traditional method proves its enduring value by adapting to contemporary needs in the equestrian world.

Application in Horse Racing and Breeding

  • Selection and Training of Racehorses:
    • Performance Prediction: Hand measurements are used to estimate a horse’s potential for speed and endurance, which is crucial in selecting racehorses.
    • Training Regimens: Trainers use these measurements to tailor training programs, ensuring each horse’s physical capabilities are maximized.
  • Breeding Practices:
    • Breeding for Size: Breeders often aim for specific size traits, and hand measurements help in selecting breeding pairs to achieve the desired height and build in offspring.
    • Genetic Considerations: This measurement aids in tracking and predicting size traits, which are often hereditary, helping to maintain or improve breed standards.
YouTube video
Discover why horses are measured in hands in this video.

Importance in Veterinary Care and Management

  • Health Assessments:
    • Growth Monitoring: Veterinarians use hand measurements to monitor a horse’s growth and development, which is especially important in young horses.
    • Health Diagnostics: Changes in size can indicate health issues. Regular measurements help in the early detection of conditions like malnutrition or growth abnormalities.
  • Equipment Fittings:
    • Saddle and Bridle Fitting: Accurate hand measurements ensure that saddles and bridles fit properly, which is crucial for the horse’s comfort and performance.
    • Custom Equipment: For specialized equipment like racing tack or therapeutic devices, precise measurements are essential for optimal functionality and safety.

Conversion Calculator from Hands to Other Units

To bridge the gap between different measurement systems, here is an interactive conversion calculator. This calculator allows you to input a measurement in hands and receive the equivalent in inches or centimeters.

Horse Height Converter

In Inches:

In Centimeters:

It’s a handy tool for:

  • International buyers or competitors who are more familiar with the metric system.
  • Educators and students in equestrian studies.
  • Online equestrian platforms for quick and easy conversions.

How to Measure a Horse in Hands

Join Ali, a passionate horse enthusiast, in this popular YouTube video with over 120,000 views, she expertly demonstrates how to accurately measure a horse’s height in hands.

YouTube video
Watch a demonstration on measuring horse height and converting it to hands.
Diagram of a horse's withers, which is key when measuring horses.

Here’s how to get it right:

  1. Position the Horse: Ensure the horse stands on a level and flat surface. This helps in getting an accurate measurement without the influence of uneven ground.
  2. Find the Withers: The first step is to locate the withers of the horse. The withers are the highest point of a horse’s back, right between the shoulder blades. This is the standard point for measuring a horse’s height.
  3. Measure from Ground to Withers: Using a measuring stick or even your hands, measure the distance from the ground straight up to the withers. This method avoids the inaccuracies that can come from a horse moving its head or changes in its back shape.
  4. Use the Right Tools: While a tape measure can work, a horse measuring stick is often easier and more precise. It’s a long bar marked with units of measurement and has a sliding horizontal bar that rests across the horse’s withers. This tool gives you precise measurements not only in hands but also in inches and centimeters, making conversions straightforward.
Picture of tool used for measuring horses,
Horse measuring stick

Common Mistakes to Avoid:

  • Not having the horse stand squarely.
  • Measuring to a point other than the withers.
  • Using a flexible tape measure that can sag or bend, leading to inaccurate readings.

Bar Chart of the Average Height in Hands of Common Horse Breeds.

Average height in hands of common horse breeds.

Picture of our two year old running.
One of our young horses in training. He is just about 15 hands tall.

FAQs for “Why Are Horses Measured in Hands?

What is the tallest horse?

The tallest horse I found was a Shire horse named Sampson, who lived in the 1850s. Sampson was 21.2 1/2 hands (7 feet 2-1/2 inches at his withers)and was said to have weighed 3,300 lbs. Shires are still the biggest breed of draft horses.

What is the smallest horse?

The smallest horse ever was a tiny 14-inch pony from New Hampshire. His name was Einstein. However, the original horse was about the size of a golden retriever.

How tall is a 16-hand horse in feet?

A sixteen-hand horse is 5’4″. A hand measurement is 4 inches; therefore, a sixteen-hand horse is 64 inches tall (4×16). 64 inches converted to feet equals five foot four inches.

What does ‘measuring a horse in hands’ mean?

Measuring a horse in hands involves using the width of a human hand as a unit of measurement. Traditionally, one hand is equal to four inches, and it’s used to measure the height of a horse from the ground to its withers (the highest point of its back).

Why is the hand used as a measurement for horses?

The hand was historically used due to its convenience and universal availability. It provided a consistent and practical way for people to measure horses without needing specialized tools.

Is the hand measurement still used today?

Yes, measuring horses in hands is still a common practice, especially in racing, breeding, and equestrian sports. It’s a globally recognized standard.

How has the hand measurement been standardized?

The hand measurement was standardized to exactly four inches to ensure consistency in measuring horses across different regions and contexts.

Picture of a draft horse on a roadway.  Why are horses measured in hands? Because we can measure horses like this even on a road without tools.
17 hand draft horse.

Conclusion: Why Are Horses Measured in Hands

Learning the answer to ‘Why Are Horses Measured in Hands’ is not just about understanding a measurement technique; it’s about connecting with our equestrian heritage. This age-old method, standardized by King Henry VIII, remains vital in equestrian activities like racing, breeding, and buying.

It provides a universal language within the horse community and adapts seamlessly to modern needs with tools like conversion calculators. As we appreciate both the cultural significance and practical utility of measuring horses in hands, I’m eager to hear your experiences.

Have you used this traditional method in your equestrian activities? Do you have any unique stories or insights to share about it? Your contributions can enrich the knowledge of fellow horse enthusiasts. Please share your stories in the comments below and join our equestrian conversation.

Stay Connected and Informed:

  • If you found this guide helpful, consider signing up for our newsletter for more insights and updates on horses.
  • For personalized advice or specific inquiries, feel free to contact me directly. I’m here to help guide you through your horse journey.
Picture of a Clydesdale and a dog.
Large 17 hand Clydesdale horse and a dog.

Join the Conversation:

  • I encourage you to share your thoughts, experiences, or questions in the comments section below. Let’s create a community of informed and passionate horse owners.
  • Don’t forget to share this article with your network. Use the social share buttons to spread knowledge and love for horses.

Thank you for reading, and I look forward to connecting with you, whether it’s through our newsletter, direct communication, or in the comments section. Here’s to the thrilling journey of racehorse ownership!