Horse Measurement - How Many Hands Is Your Horse?

Horse Measurement - How Many Hands is Your Horse?

Why is a horse's stature measured by hand?

Here's a trick question, unless you have horses:

The tall, dark and handsome thoroughbred hunter-jumper stands 16 hands high. His flashy Arabian show horse and pasture pal, however, is 15 hands tall. And the sturdy and dependable Paint pleasure horse is 15.3 hands. How tall are these three horses?

Why are horses measured in hands, instead of feet?

According to popular legend, ancient horse traders needed a method of measuring horses. Stacking one man's fist upon another was the simplest system. Thus, a horse came to be measured by hand.

Here's how to measure a horse in hands.

Throughout human history, body parts have been commonly used as units of measurement. A cubit once referred to the length of a man's forearm. A foot became a standard for shoe sizing and much more.

Since those early days, horses have been measured in hands. In time, even as the foot came to mean twelve inches, the hand was standardized to mean four inches (approximately 10 cm.).

In other words, if a horse stands 16 hands high (hh), then he is really 64 inches (or 5'4") tall. A horse who is 16.3 hh is 67 inches (or 5'7") tall. Following this rule, a 68" tall horse would be called 17 hh. (There is no 16.4, because the fourth inch would make such a horse 17 hh.)

How are horses measured today?

To obtain an accurate measurement, a stiff measuring stick must be used. These are available at tack stores and online at equine supply catalog houses. The stick has a cross-bar that is placed at the horse's withers.

The horse must stand on a flat, level surface for accurate measuring. A horse's withers would be the bony spot at the lowest end of his mane - where his neck and back meet - just in front of where the saddle is placed. When a horse puts his nose and mouth to the ground, the withers is the highest point of his skeleton.

It's important to measure a standing horse several times, as an equine may shift his weight or stand unevenly. Average your findings to get the best results.

Why does it matter?

It is important to know the height (in hands) of a horse for breed registration, equestrian show entries, and equine marketing. Equine appraisers and horse show judges may rate a horse's physical conformation, and his stature is a key feature!


The thoroughbred is 5'4" (or 64 inches) tall. The Arabian is 5' (or 60") tall. The Paint is 5'3" (or 63") tall.

Adapted from public domain photo

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