Skip to Content

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

Any links on this page that lead to products on Amazon are affiliate links and I earn a commission if you make a purchase. Thanks in advance – I really appreciate it!


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 did some research to find out.

Horses are measured in 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.

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.


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.  

What are other units of measurements 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.


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 he may 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 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 horses’ 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.

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 that of a thoroughbred horse, but they’re quicker at some distances.

There have been no studies confirming that height translates to a speed of a horse. 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 horses’ stride.

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

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 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.

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 horses 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 angle 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.

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!

Related 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.

Related articles: