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Horse Hands: Understanding Horse Height Measurements


For folks who haven’t spent a lot of time around horses, the ways that horse height is described can be very confusing. Descriptions of horse sizes within horse industry resources (like sales websites, equipment vendors catalogs, etc.) reference horse’s sizes by “hands,” but for many new horse owners, riders, or horse-curious people, this measurement is meaningless!

In this article, we’ll talk a little bit about horse sizes, how horses are measured, the pros and cons of having a very tall or short horse, and why the heck horses are measured in hands and not feet. You may be surprised what you’ll learn!


Understanding how horses are measured can help us communicate more clearly about a horse's height.

Understanding how horses are measured can help us communicate more clearly about a horse’s height.

First, How Horses are Measured:

Horses are measured in a unit of measurement called a “hand.” A hand is equal to exactly 4 inches.

The number of hands a horse is describes how tall they stand when they are measured from the ground to the withers- that’s the point where the horse’s neck meets the body with a slight bump at the base of the mane. A horse’s head and neck is never included in height measurements because the position of the horse’s head could dramatically affect the reading!

Why is horse height measured in this unit?

Humans and horses have been partnered for millennia, before rulers and measuring tapes were available or even standardized, there was a need to be able to describe the size of a horse. Handlers, knowing that most human hands were size roughly the same: about 4 inches, begin using the width of the hand is an easy, portable, and somewhat universal way to measure horse height. To measure a horse for sale or for auction they would simply stack hands one on top of another and count how many hands it took to measure the horse from hoof to shoulders.

measuring a horse with a specially designed measuring stick

A horse’s height is measured to the withers- that’s the bump where the neck meets the shoulders, shown here. Photo by carterse

Rounding Horse Hands Up or Down

Generally, the height of a horse is not rounded up or down to the nearest hand. Instead, measurements between are represented with decimal points ranging from .1 to .3.

This is somewhat unusual, and not how decimal points are typically calculated. Typically, half of a unit of measurement would be represented as .5, however, with horses it is never correct to describe a horse as “_.5 hands.” Instead, to represent one half of a hand, .2 (representing 2 inches of the 4-inch hand measurement) is used.

Thus, horse heights might be represented as 14.1, 18.2, 12.3, etc, but never 14.5, 15.7, etc.


Is a Hand Measurement Accurate?

Measuring horse height, and especially doing so with an actual hand, is notoriously unreliable. Because human hands do vary in width, in the 20th century it became standard to use a measuring stick that stands straight up from the ground with an extension arm to set on the horse’s withers. You can see an example of this special horse measuring stick below. This measuring apparatus helps get a more accurate measurement than using hands or using a tape (which can give an inaccurate reading due to measuring the contours of a horse’s body).

measuring a horse with a specially designed measuring stick

photo by carterse

How to Measure Your Horses Height

Be sure your horse is standing on level ground, and position or give your horse the command to stand square , then measure from the ground to the withers. If you don’t have a measuring stick that’s ok- you can make your own using cardboard. Simply mark the height of your horse with a pen, then use a standard tape measure to measure from the ground to that mark.


Standard horse sizes


The vast majority of adult full-size horses range from 14.2 hands to 16.2 hands.

Horses smaller than 14.2 hands are called ponies and are generally more popular for young riders.

Horses over about 16.2 hands tend to be more difficult to mount and potentially more dangerous to ride due to a potentially harder fall from a taller horse.

Some horse sports, such as speed events, cutting, or reining favor smaller horses that can move more quickly and stay closer to the ground. Other horse sports, including hunter/jumper events and dressage, often favor taller horses with a long elegant stride.

For most pleasure riders, a horse that is around 15 to 15.2 hands high is a comfortable, medium-sized horse. Average size horses are easy to mount and are highly versatile because of their adaptable size. Many new riders are more comfortable learning to ride on a smaller horse.



Should Larger Riders have Larger horses?

Many new plus-size riders assume that because they are bigger, their horse should be larger to accommodate- but that’s not always the case! This assumption leads to many larger riders purchasing draft or draft-cross horses that may be 16, 17, or even 18 hands tall, but bigger horses may not be the best choice.

Why? Draft horses have been selectively bred for countless generations to effectively pull weight. With strong, heavy shoulders, these horses are often built downhill (with withers lower than their rump) and may actually be no better suited to carrying a larger rider than an average horse of average build.

Instead, plus size riders may benefit from looking for an average-sized horse – 14.2 to 16 hands – with a stocky, uphill build. Horses with withers standing a bit taller than their rump, with a shorter body length from withers to rump may be better suited for carrying heavier riders. A shorter spine and compact build results in a stockier horse- just the kind of horse that was preferred for heavy riders to use for cattle work on the range, pack work, and mounted battle in generations past.


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