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Measuring Horses: A Guide to Hands and Height

Last updated: December 8, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Have you ever wondered how tall a horse is? In the world of horses, their height is measured in a unique way – using ‘hands.’ This might sound strange at first, but it’s a method with deep historical roots and practical reasons.

Measuring horses is crucial in various equestrian disciplines. Whether it’s for horse racing, show jumping, or simply buying a horse, knowing its height is important. It helps in understanding the horse’s potential in sports, ensuring it fits the rider well, and even in selecting the right equipment.

The hand measurement system is quite straightforward. One hand equals four inches. When measuring a horse, you count how many such ‘hands’ fit from the ground up to the horse’s withers – the highest point of its back, right between the shoulder blades. This system has been used for centuries and is still the standard way of measuring horses today.

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

Origin of Using Hands for Measuring Horses

The story of measuring horses with hands started a long time ago, way back in history. Imagine a time when there were no rulers or tape measures. People needed a way to measure things, and what better tool than something they always had with them – their own hands? This is how the idea of using hands to measure horses began. It was simple; everyone could use it, and it was surprisingly effective.

In ancient times, especially in Egypt, people used their body parts to measure everything around them. The width of a palm, including the thumb (what we now call a ‘hand’), was a common unit. Back then, this measurement was slightly smaller than today’s four inches, but it was a start. This method wasn’t just for horses; it was used for all sorts of things, but it became really popular for measuring these animals.

Evolution of the Measurement System Through Different Cultures and Times

As time went on, this method of measuring spread across the world. Different cultures adopted it and adapted it to their needs. The size of a ‘hand’ varied slightly from place to place, but the basic idea stayed the same.

It was a system that traveled through time and space, from the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks and Romans, and then across medieval Europe. Each culture added its own touch to the way horses were measured, but the hand always remained central to the process.

Role of King Henry VIII in Standardizing the Hand Measurement

Enter King Henry VIII of England, a famous king known for many things, including his six wives. But he also played a big role in the story of horse measurement. In the 1500s, King Henry VIII decided that there needed to be a standard way to measure horses.

He declared that one hand would now equal four inches. This was a big deal because it meant everyone would be using the same size for a hand, making it easier to buy, sell, and breed horses. King Henry was passionate about horses, especially for their use in war and jousting.

He wanted to improve the quality of horses in England, and having a standard measurement was a key step. This decision by King Henry VIII was so influential that it’s still the way we measure horses today.

So, from ancient palms to King Henry VIII’s decree, the journey of measuring horses in hands is a tale that spans centuries and continents. It’s a blend of practicality, tradition, and a bit of royal influence, all coming together to create the system we use today.

Is the Hand Unit of Measurement Universally Used Today?

When we look at how horses are measured, it’s quite fascinating to see the differences around the world. In many countries, like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and some parts of Europe, the hand measurement system is the go-to method. But this isn’t the case everywhere.

Take France, Spain, and Germany, for example, where horses are usually measured in meters, not hands. This variation in how we measure horses shows the rich diversity of horse-related traditions and practices across different cultures.

Picture of a tall yearling.
15 hand Thoroughbred yearling.

The Hand Measurement System Explained

In the world of horses, a ‘hand’ is a unit of measurement that’s been used for centuries. But what exactly does it mean? Simply put, one hand equals four inches. This measurement is based on the average width of a human hand, including the thumb. It’s a practical and easy way to measure the height of a horse without needing any special tools.

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.

Achieving Accurate Horse Measurements

Measuring a horse correctly is crucial for various equestrian activities, from fitting equipment to ensuring fairness in competitions. The key to accurate measurement lies in focusing on the horse’s withers, the highest point on their back located just behind the shoulder at the base of the neck. Unlike the head or back, which can move and change shape, the withers provide a stable and consistent point for measurement.

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 not only gives you a precise measurement in hands but also in inches and centimeters, making conversions straightforward.
Picture of tool used for measuring horses,
Horse measuring tool

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.

Check out the latest horse height and weight tapes on Amazon for tools that can help you measure with precision and ease.

By taking the time to measure your horse correctly and understanding the importance of the withers as a reference point, you can ensure accurate and reliable measurements. This not only helps in practical aspects like fitting equipment but also connects you to the traditional practices of horse care and management.

Picture of a racehorse that is 16 hands tall.
16 hand racehorse.

Use of Hand Measurements in Different Equestrian Activities

The hand measurement system is not just a traditional relic; it’s a practical tool used in various equestrian activities today. Here’s how it’s applied:

  1. Racing: In horse racing, the height of a horse can give insights into its racing capabilities. Thoroughbreds, for instance, often range in height, and their size can impact their speed and stride.
  2. Breeding: Breeders pay close attention to the height of horses. It’s crucial for predicting the size of offspring, especially in breeds where height is a breed standard or when breeding for specific disciplines like show jumping or dressage.
  3. Buying and Selling: When buying or selling a horse, height is a key factor. It helps potential buyers understand if the horse is suitable for their needs, whether it’s for riding, competition, or leisure.
  4. Health and Wellness Checks: Veterinarians and horse owners use height as part of regular health assessments. It helps in monitoring growth in young horses and maintaining ideal weight and health.

Comparison with Other Measurement Units

While ‘hands’ are the standard in the equestrian world, they are often converted to inches or centimeters for clarity, especially in scientific or international contexts. Here’s a quick comparison:

  • 1 hand = 4 inches
  • 1 hand ≈ 10.16 centimeters

This conversion is essential for international competitions, veterinary care, and in countries where the metric system is standard.

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

Advantages and Limitations

Recognizing there are advantages and limitations to using hand measurements is crucial for anyone involved in the equestrian world. It helps in appreciating the traditional aspects of horse measurement while acknowledging the need for precision and global standardization in contemporary practices.

Benefits of Using Hands for Measurement

  1. Simplicity and Accessibility: One of the biggest advantages of using hands for measuring horses is its simplicity. It’s a method that can be easily understood and used by anyone, from professional equestrians to casual horse enthusiasts.
  2. Historical Continuity: The hand measurement system offers a connection to equestrian history, maintaining a tradition that has been passed down through generations. This continuity adds a cultural richness to the practice of horse keeping and breeding.
  3. Universal Standard in Equestrian Circles: In many equestrian circles, hands are the universally accepted unit for discussing horse height. This common language allows for easy communication among horse owners, trainers, and enthusiasts worldwide.

Challenges and Limitations in Precision and Standardization

  1. Variability in Hand Size: Historically, the size of a ‘hand’ could vary slightly from person to person, leading to inconsistencies in measurements. While the modern definition is standardized, the old method’s variability could sometimes lead to confusion.
  2. Precision Issues: For scientific and veterinary purposes, more precise measurements in inches or centimeters might be necessary. The hand, being a broader measure, might not offer the exactness required for detailed anatomical studies or treatment.
  3. Adaptation to Metric System: In countries where the metric system is the norm, converting from hands to centimeters or meters can be an extra step that might lead to slight inaccuracies if not done carefully.

Recent trends and studies in horse measurement focus on enhancing accuracy and adapting to a more globalized context:

  1. Technological Advancements: The use of digital measuring devices and apps is becoming more common. These tools offer more precise measurements and can automatically convert hands to other units.
  2. Research on Breed-Specific Standards: Ongoing studies often focus on establishing breed-specific height standards. This research is crucial for breeding programs aimed at maintaining or improving breed characteristics.
  3. Global Standardization Efforts: There’s a growing trend toward standardizing horse measurement methods internationally, especially for competitions and breeding programs that operate across different countries.
Picture of a large draft horse over 17 hands tall.
Big draft horse over 17 hands tall.

What Are Other Units of Measurement Based on Body Parts?

When discussing the measurement of horses in hands, it’s fascinating to see how this method fits into a broader historical context of human-based measurement units. Let’s explore some of these ancient measurements:

  1. Foot (ft): The foot, equivalent to 12 inches today, originated from the actual length of a human foot. Its length varied historically across regions but has since been standardized.
  2. Cubit: This ancient unit was based on the length of the forearm, from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Widely used in civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia, the cubit’s length varied among cultures.
  3. Palms: In the cubit system, a cubit was often subdivided into palms. Unlike the modern understanding of a palm (around 3 inches), historical measurements could vary.
  4. Finger: Often used for smaller measurements, the width of a finger, or a finger’s breadth, served as a rough estimate in various cultures.
  5. Span: This measurement was based on the distance between an outstretched thumb and little finger. It was a common unit in ancient times and is still found in some traditional measurement systems.
  6. Thumb: The width of a thumb was later used as the basis for the inch, a unit we still use today. Learn more about body-based units of measurement.
  7. Pace: Defined as the distance covered in one step with both feet together, the pace varied based on an individual’s height and walking style.

These historical units, like the hand measurement for horses, show how humans have long used their bodies as tools for measurement. It’s interesting to compare these methods with modern techniques. How do you think these ancient measurements stack up against today’s horse-measuring techniques? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Picture of a Clydesdale and a dog.
Large Clydesdale horse and a dog.

What Is the Average Height of a Horse in Hands?

When it comes to horses, their sizes can vary as much as their personalities. If you’re a horse enthusiast or planning to own one, understanding the average heights of different breeds can be quite fascinating.

Generally, the average horse stands around 15 hands at the withers, which is the highest point on a horse’s back, just in front of the shoulder blades. However, this is just a starting point, as horse heights can vary significantly across breeds.

Diverse Heights in Different Breeds:

Horse BreedAverage Height (in hands)Characteristics
Thoroughbred15.2 – 17Athletic build, often used in racing
Shire16 – 18Impressive size, one of the tallest breeds
Arabian14.1 – 15.1Endurance, generally shorter and compact
Quarter Horse14.3 – 16Well-muscled, compact, popular in rodeos
Ponies (e.g., Shetland)7 – 14.2Small size, including breeds like Shetland and Welsh ponies
Miniature Horses8.5 – 9.5Horse-like characteristics, very small
Friesian15 – 17Graceful movement, elegant appearance
ClydesdaleUp to 18Used for pulling wagons, very tall
Picture of our two year old running

Do Taller Racehorses Run Faster?

Each time I visit the racetrack, I’m struck by the impressive height of the Thoroughbreds. They seem to grow taller every season, sparking a question: does a taller horse mean a faster horse?

Contrary to what one might assume, taller racehorses do not necessarily run faster. In fact, height isn’t the key factor determining a racehorse’s speed. For instance, Quarter Horses are generally shorter than Thoroughbreds, yet they excel in sprinting over short distances.

What really matters in a racehorse’s speed is the length of its stride and how frequently it strides, known as stride frequency. Stride length is the distance a horse covers in one leap – from the point where its front foot hits the ground to where it lands again. Most racehorses have an average stride length of about 20 feet, but some champions, like the legendary Man O’ War, boasted a remarkable stride length of 28 feet.

These insights into horse racing dynamics reveal that while height might be visually striking, it’s the mechanics of a horse’s movement that truly dictate its speed on the track.

Picture of a gray thoroughbred that is on the small side.
15.5 hand Thoroughbred filly


Understanding how to measure a horse in hands is not just about numbers; it’s a bridge to our equestrian heritage. This traditional method, standardized by King Henry VIII, has stood the test of time, proving its practicality in various equestrian activities like racing, breeding, and buying. While it offers a universal language in the horse community, it also adapts well to modern needs with tools like conversion calculators.

As we embrace both the cultural richness and the practical aspects of this measurement system, we invite you to share your experiences or thoughts. Have you used the hand measurement system in your equestrian activities? Do you have any interesting stories or insights about it? Your contributions may help other horse enthusiasts. Share your stories in the comments below and join the conversation.

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

Miles Henry