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Why Are Horses Measured in Hands? Tradition or More to it?

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When describing the height of horses, everyone always uses hands as the standard measurement. This unique way of measuring horses made me curious about why it’s used and where it came from, so I researched.

Horses are measured by hands because they didn’t have standard measuring tools in ancient societies, so they commonly used hands to measure horses; this tradition continues to the present. One hand is considered 4 inches, so a 15-hand horse is 60 inches tall. 

Describing a horse’s height by hand made sense in the past, but is it still a viable method to use today? Once you know the backstory, I think you’ll agree that this standard measurement should be continued.

History of measuring horses by hands.

Horses have been used for transportation, farming, and war for centuries. In order to measure horses accurately, a system was developed to measure horses by their height in hands. Ancient Egyptians used a unit of measurement based on parts of the body, including the hands.

They measured a horse’s height as the distance from the ground to the top of its front leg, using fists or open hands as units of measurement. This practice was widely used but not too accurate. Because of the popularity of horse trading a definitive unit was needed.

Henry VIII standardized the hand measurement at 4 inches in the 1500s. Having a consistent width allowed buyers and sellers of horses to have a standard reference.

withers.yearling edited

It is a practical way to measure horses and is still used today. After I explain in more detail how we measure a horse, we will look at what role height plays in racehorses. Keep reading to find out.

Standard hand measurements started in the 1500s.

In the United States, the hand remains the primary unit of measure as in most English-speaking countries such as Britain, Canada, Australia, Ireland, etc…while other European countries and the Federal Equestrian International (FEI) use meters.  

Are other animals besides horses measured in hands?

Do you know how large a hippopotamus is? How about an elephant? Hands are one of the ways that humans measure other animals. In fact, horses were not the first creatures to be measured in this way.

When it comes to measuring other animals, hands are one of the most common units of measurement. This system likely came into use because humans have used their bodies as a reference to measure things throughout history.

People found that they could estimate the height of animals relatively easily by using hand measurements for most animals. There are a few reasons. For one, hand measurements are relatively easy to take and provide a good estimate of an animal’s size. Additionally, human hands were relatively similar in size.

As time passed, hand measurements began to be most often associated with horses more so than other animals. However, it’s still used for ponies, and I’m unsure if it’s an acceptable practice, but my friends and I refer to the height of deer, elk, and moose in terms of hands.

What are other units of measurement based on body parts?

  • Cubit was the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Usually about 18 inches. This form of measurement was used for years in the middle east.
  • Palms: cubits are sub-divided into seven palms, each one about 75cm
  • foot: the unit foot is based on the length of a man’s foot.
  • Digit: The width of a finger, which tends to be about 2cm (about 13/16 of an inch). If someone asks you to pour them a “finger” or two of liquor, it’s that height in a short tumbler.
  • Span: Stretch out your hand so that the tip of your thumb is as far away as possible from the tip of your pinky. That distance is called a “span,” which is almost exactly half a cubit for most people.
  • Thumb: The width of a thumb, which was later used as the basis for the inch.

How to properly measure a horse.

Horses are measured to the top of their withers. To get an accurate hand measurement, start by standing your horse on a level, flat surface and measuring from the ground to his withers.

Withers are the highest point of the back of the horse. It is just behind the shoulder at the base of the neck. Withers are used for the measurement point because they are stable.

Picture of a two year old horse in training

It would not be easy to get a measurement from a horse’s head because it is continuously moving up and down. Likewise, the back of a horse is not ideal either.

A horse could arch his back or have a naturally low or high back. It would be hard to get an accurate measurement. The withers is the most stable position to use to measure a horse.

Horse measuring sticks are easy to use.

A tape measure is just fine for measuring a horse; however, it may be hard to handle around a horse and still get an accurate measurement. A measuring stick is the easiest to use and gives the user the best chance to precisely measure an animal. (click this link to check the price on Amazon for horse height and weight tapes)

A measuring stick is a long bar with marking, with a horizontal bar that slides up and down the rod. Hold the more extended section on the ground next to the horse and place the flat bar across the horse’s withers.

These tools provide a more accurate result and have markings to determine hands, inches, and centimeters for easy conversion.

horse measuring tool

To convert inches to hands is easy. However, fractional hands do not translate to decimals. In other words, a horse that stands 14.2 is 14 hands high plus 2 inches.

Converting hands to inches is simple.

If this were written using the usual decimal system, it would be written as 14.5. The .5 would indicate 1/2 of 4 inches. In our example, the horse is 58 inches tall. 14×4=56 plus 2 inches equals 58 inches.

The average riding horse will usually range between 15-17 hands. While a draft horse can reach heights over 20 hands and miniatures below eight hands high. To read about the size of jockeys, click here.

What is the average height of a horse in hands?

Do you have a horse? Or are you thinking of getting one? If so, you may be wondering how big they get. The average height of a horse is around 15 hands at the withers. This measurement is taken from the highest point on the horse’s back, just in front of the shoulder blades.

Horses come in all shapes and sizes, so don’t worry if your horse is a little taller or shorter than this. Some breeds, like the Shire, are known for being on the tall side. And some miniature horses only grow to around 36 inches at the withers.

So how does your horse’s height compare to the average? If you’re not sure, take a look at our chart below. It lists the average height of several popular horse breeds.

Horse BreedHeight in hands
Thoroughbred16 hands
Quarter Horse15.1 hands
Arabian15 hands
Shire17 hands
Friesian15.3 hands
Morgan15 hands
Standardbred15.5 hands
Icelandic13 hands
Belgian16.5 hands
Appaloosa15 hands
Tennessee Walking Horse15.2 hands

Heights of Different Types of Horses: How Do You Compare?

There are three major types of horses in the world, and each group is unique in its own way. One of the most interesting things about horses is their height – it varies greatly from one kind to another.

The three primary types of horses are large draft breeds, Warm-bloods, and hot-bloods. The large draft breeds are the biggest of all horses, with heights ranging from 16 to 18 hands high.

Warmbloods are a bit shorter on average than the draft breeds, typically measuring in at around 15.2-16.2 hands high. And finally, hot-bloods are the shortest on average of the three types of horses, averaging about 15.2 hands high.

Does the entire equestrian world use the hand unit of measurement?

It’s a question that has puzzled me for years – do we all measure horses in hands, or is it just a U.S. thing? It turns out, that there are many different ways to measure horses around the world, and many countries have their own unique system.

Horses are measured in a variety of ways around the world, but the most common unit of measurement is Hands. In the U.S., Canada, |Australia, and parts of Europe, horses are most often measured in hands, while in other countries such as France, Spain, and Germany, they are typically measured in meters.

Picture of a black horse.

Do Taller Racehorses Run Faster?

When at the track, I’m always amazed at the height of some of the Thoroughbreds. Each year they seem to get taller than the previous season; this made me wonder if horses are being bred for height and if taller horses run faster.

Taller racehorses do not run faster. Height is not a determinative factor of a racehorse’s speed. The average quarter horse’s height is shorter than a thoroughbred horse’s, but they’re quicker at some distance.

No studies have confirmed that height translates to a horse’s speed. What is important is the length of the stride and stride frequency.

Stride length is critical to horse speed.

Stride is the length a horse covers while running in a single leap. In other words, the point from where a horse’s front foot hits the ground to where that same foot hits the ground next is the horse’s stride.

The average stride of most racehorses is 20 feet. However, the champion Man O’ War had a stride length of 28 feet.

Picture of our two year old running

Stride rate is important in racehorse speed.

Stride rate or turnover ratio calculates the number of strides a racehorse performs per a given time frame. Most racehorses have a stride rate between 130 and 140 strides per minute.

The faster horses will be able to quicken their pace without shortening it. Some champion horses have a stride of over 160 strides per minute.

Quarter horses, on average, have a faster stride rate than thoroughbreds. But thoroughbreds have to maintain their stride over a longer distance and time. To perform this feat, several factors have to work together.

For the racehorse to run efficiently while taking such a long stride and maintaining a high stride frequency takes the perfect balance of the body’s anatomical systems.

Horses draw in a lot of oxygen when running.

Oxygen intake must be maximized. As horses extend their bodies during a race, they take in air through their nose, and as they constrict their legs in, they exhale.

A racehorse’s heart must also be performing at a high level. A racehorse’s heart can circulate up to 75 gallons of blood each minute, which increases the amount of oxygen-rich red blood cells in the bloodstream.

This provides the necessary oxygen to the horse during the race. An average horse’s heart weighs between 9 and 10 pounds. Another term used when talking about a horse’s racing speed is stride angle.

Stride angle affects a horse’s speed.

Stride angle is a measurement of the space between a horse’s front and back foot, usually measured at a push-off of the rear foot.

In other words, the stride angle is a method used to determine how far a horse will flatten out when racing. Racehorses with higher stride angles will, in turn, have a longer stride.

A stride angle study shows the Secretariat had the highest stride angles of all racehorses at 110 degrees. Proponents believe stride angle to be an essential factor in determining the success of a racehorse.

Long-striding horses are more likely to have a superior energy system than their short-striding counterparts.

The two most important factors of a fast racehorse are the length of their stride and their stride rate. Height is not a factor.

Picture of a gray thoroughbred that is on the small side.

Interesting Facts about Smaller Horses:

It seems as though most people believe bigger is better; however, that is not necessarily true when it comes to horses.

  • Seabiscuit was small for a racehorse. He had a great racing career and is the subject of many racehorse books.
  • John Henry is another small racehorse. He became the first horse to win $4,000,000.00. At the time of his retirement, his career earnings exceeded $6,000,000.00.
  • Sir Walter Gilbey wrote a book entitled, “Small horses in Warfare.” published in 1900. He cited example after example of how horses 13.2 to 14.3 outperformed big horses in nearly every endeavor.
  • During the Crimean War, horses-all under 14.3- ridden by Armenian and Bashi Bazouks consistently performed “beyond the capabilities of the English Thoroughbred cavalry.” 
  • D. Peschkof, a Cossack, left Blagoveshchensk, Siberia, in November of 1889.  He and his tack weighed 180 pounds, but he rode his pony, which was only 12.3 hands, 5,478 miles in 193 days.  The pony, named Seri, crossed Siberia in the winter and averaged 37 miles per day.  Incredible!

Below is a helpful YouTube video showing how to measure a horse’s height.


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.