How Horse Height is Measured

horse height measured by hands

When we talk about the height of a horse, what do we mean? Do we measure from the hoof to the head? From the tip of the tail to the tip of the nose? And why do we say “hands” when horses don’t have hands?

Horses have been around for centuries, so a standard has been in place nearly as long. A horse’s height is taken by measuring from the ground up to the highest point on the withers, or the ridge between the horse’s shoulder blades.

However, we don’t hear a horse’s height expressed in inches. Around the world, where the metric system is standard, many countries use centimeters. In English–speaking countries, horses are measured in “hands,” or four–inch increments, a measurement that originated in ancient Egypt. For example, a horse that measures 56 inches from the ground up to the top of the withers is 14 hands high, or 14 hh.

That’s simple enough, but what about horses that measure in numbers not as easily divisible by four? That’s where the decimal point comes in, but not in the way we’d think. A horse that is 58 inches high would be 14½ hands — but because two is half of four, it would be written as 14.2 hh. By the same extension, 57 inches is 14.1 hh, and 59 inches is 14.3 hh.

To measure properly, you can use a tape measure, or a length of string or twine you can mark and measure later with a ruler. For a more accurate result, and especially if you don’t like to do math, use a measuring tool with hands marked easily alongside inches as well as centimeters. Make sure the horse is standing on flat, level ground, with its front feet as close to even as possible. If you need this information for competition purposes, find out whether your horse’s measurements are supposed to be with or without shoes.

  • Published:
  • Updated: 3/13/2018: 1:04:35 PM ET