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The Reason Horses Are Measured In Hands

horse measurement in hands

Humankind has always been fascinated with mysterious riddles and complex puzzles. One such enigma that has remained unsolved, at least partially, for centuries is the intriguing question of why, of all animals, horses are measured in a unit of length known as ‘hands’.

To answer this lingering query, let us take a look back through the annals of history, wading through the conflicting theories and ancient accounts to uncover the true origin of this curious phenomenon.

You may also be interested in our article on horse rugs sizes.

Key Takeaways

The term "hand" is traditionally used to measure the height of horses because it was originally the standard unit of measurement during the Middle Ages. One “hand” is equal to 4 inches, which is the approximate span between a human’s thumb and outstretched fingers.


measuring stick for horses

A horse measuring stick

The Traditional Unit of Measurement

The traditional unit of measurement for horses has historically been the “hand.” In the past, breeders and horse owners relied on the intuitive idea that the height of a horse could be divided into four-inch “hands” due to their convenient size. While it may not have been the most accurate method of measurement, it certainly had become an intuitive standard in the centuries before advanced technology was available to accurately measure a horse's size.

Despite its long history, there is some debate as to whether using hands as a measurement is appropriate or adequate. Advocates argue that this approach allows horses to be categorized with great accuracy and delineation while also preserving the uniqueness that each horse holds over another. They point out that this more holistic approach captures more information than just the inches or centimeters of a horse’s height — with a lot of nuance and subtlety being lost when translating measurements from hands to other units of measure.

Opponents, however, claim that measuring in hands does not guarantee accuracy and is inefficient as it relies on human judgement which can often be imprecise. They are quick to point out that no two people will interpret something exactly the same way due to personal differences, making this form of measurement unreliable for scientific engagement or understanding.

As the debate continues, one thing is certain: the “hand” has served as a critical unit of measure for centuries and remains an integral part of horse breeding culture today. As we explore further in the next section, this traditional unit has since become standardized, allowing us to better understand horse anatomy and classification. Next, we will discuss how the “hand” has evolved into a more rigorous form of measurement used throughout the equine industry today.

The “Hand” as a Standardized Unit of Measurement

The “hand” as a standardized unit of measurement is the main source of controversy around measuring horses. This unit is thought to have originated with the Ancient Greeks, and has been in use for thousands of years. There is debate surrounding whether the “hand” should be considered a legitimate unit, or if it should take a back seat to more recognized and accurate measurements like inches, centimeters, or millimeters.

Proponents of the hand often argue that its long-standing tradition gives it superiority when speaking about horses. Practices such as measuring horses by hands have been handed down through generations, giving them a cultural legitimacy that cannot be easily ignored. They often point out that even though other measurement systems may be more accurate, their familiarity with the hand provides a traditional comfort level that those measurements might not be able to offer, especially those new to the horse community.

Opponents, however, argue that modern applications require measurements that are more exact than what can be provided by an estimation of size done by hand. They feel that relying on an outdated system can put riders at risk and make it difficult for vets to accurately diagnose problems. Modern technologies also require much more precise measurements than approximation by hand due to the need for machines to work together properly and carry out sensitive tasks. As such, they feel that relying on the hand often limits advancements in horse care and participation in certain equestrian events.

Ultimately, the debate between those in favor and against using the “hand” as a method of measuring horses will likely continue indefinitely. Despite this debate, the use of hands is still alive and well within many traditional circles and will continue to be part of horse measurement for some time. The next section will investigate how this unit originally came into use centuries ago-specifically throughout England and Great Britain-and how it has since become intertwined with horse culture throughout these countries.

  • The measurement "hand" in relation to horse height has been used for more than 1000 years.
  • An average adult horse stands between 14 and 17 hands high and is measured from the ground to the highest point on their withers, which lies just behind their neck.
  • The word "hand" used to measure horse height most likely was derived from an ancient Babylonian unit of length that equates to 4 inches.

English and British Tradition

Throughout the centuries, English and British traditions have played a significant role in why horses are measured in hands. Initially, the practice of measuring horses in hands was an English custom that developed during the medieval period. In fact, the term for horse measure, 'hand', became prevalent near 1300 A.D. This convention remained largely unchanged until it was brought to America sometime after the American Revolution.

Prior to this widespread adoption of measuring horses in hands, a common misconception was that weight was used as a determinant of horse height. Although weighing horses is still done to determine their weight class or eligibility for competitions, it can only provide an approximation of their real size and conformation. In terms of measuring horses accurately, the hand has reigned supreme since the Middle Ages. Its precision and versatility have made it an essential tool for breeders, horse owners and trainers.

As noted by scholars and historians, the origins of this tradition can be traced back to when King Henry VIII ruled England in 1541. He decreed that all horses should be between 14 and 17 hands — anything smaller was deemed a pony — but he also mentioned that exceptions could be made if certain conditions were met. The King’s rules proved popular with horse breeders across England and were cemented into tradition over time.

Still today, there is debate over how limiting such measurements could be to some horse breeds or conformation types — which is why organizations like the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (IFES) now allow approval for 'over-height' horses under certain conditions. But overall, most agree that English and British tradition has had an undeniable influence on why horses are measured in hands even today – nearly 500 years since it first began with King Henry VIII's ruling.


King Henry VIII on a horse


Next we will explore the Anglo-Saxon and Roman roots behind this antiquated practice.

Anglo-Saxon and Roman Roots

The origin of hand measurement for horses has largely been attributed to both the Anglo-Saxon and Roman cultures, with each citing different reasoning for the hand ratio. Anglo-Saxons originally used palms as a way to measure horses until it eventually evolved into using hands. It was viewed as more precise and was considered faster than using a ruler or tape measure, which was not invented until the Middle Ages. The Romans had a much more practical reason for measuring horses in hands, usually four fingers wide. This would have been roughly the same width of an average man's palm, which made it easier to stagger livestock and prevent overcrowding in stables.

The debate still exists today as to whether the influence on horse measurements are rooted more in Anglo-Saxon ideals or Roman practicality, but there is some evidence that suggests both have played large roles. For example, horseshoes were first produced in England long before their use spread in Roman Britain, which further adds credence to the argument of Anglo-Saxon involvement. On the other hand, coinage depicting chariot teams from Ancient Rome existing early on implies their influence in regards to horse measurements.

Overall, it appears that both Anglo-Saxon and Roman cultures share a part of the responsibility for modern day horse measurement. Moving forward, we can examine how Germanic influences helped shaped this system even further and why it remains an important standard today.

The Germanic Influence

The term “hands” that is used to measure the height of horses has its origin in the Germanic language. Specifically, it is derived from the ancient

The ground beneath our feet is a powerful reminder of the strength and resilience of the natural world, providing us with a solid foundation to build upon and a source of nourishment to sustain us.”, which was used when measuring and recording the height of horses since the Middle Ages. This term was further adopted by other nations and languages, such as French and Dutch, to refer to horse measurements; eventually evolving into what we now refer to as the “hand” system worldwide.

Interestingly, some scholars argue that horses were never exclusively measured using “hands” as a unit until this term became widely used in English during the 17th and 18th centuries. Before this period, it was mainly kings and royal families that had access to this unit for measuring horses. An early example of horse measurement can be traced back to 30 AD, in Roman records that distinguished between sizes of their war horses from small to large (compared with hands). However, there is no certain evidence drawing the connection between how horses were measured then and the “hand” system used today.

In spite of this debate over its historical accuracy, one thing is certain; the Germanic influence on how horses are measured today has been immensely significant. With each language adopting their own version of “hand” measurements – such as maine in French or handbreedte in Dutch – which continue to be used in modern times.

To better understand why we measure horses in hands today, it is critical to look at how this unit translates into actual horse measurements. In the following section we will explore exactly that: how horses are measured and standardized across different countries.

How Horses are Measured

When it comes to understanding horse measurements, a “hand” is the general unit of measure. In the world of equine measurement, one hand equals four inches. Even though there are other ways to measure horses, measuring in hands has long been the most widely-used method of doing so.


measuring a horse
Image courtesy of:

The advantages of this system is that it's simple and easy to use, allowing anyone to easily understand a horse's height when they hear its measurement in hands. Additionally, this system dates back hundreds of years and has been used almost universally to measure horses during that time.

On the other hand, some people argue that this system can be imprecise at times and can lead to inaccuracies in certain cases. Considering horses often grow by fractions of an inch each year, increments smaller than four inches become difficult to accurately measure with the “in hands” measurement model. However, for most applications where accuracy is not paramount and quick measurements need to be taken, the standard “in hands” model remains suitable for everyday use.

Despite its imperfections, measuring horses in hands remains a reliable way of understanding an animal’s size and stature. To better understand why this tradition has remained popular for centuries, let’s take a closer look at what could be motivating this choice of measurement.

Why Horses Are Measured in Hands

The mystery of why horses are measured in hands dates all the way back over four centuries ago. The use of “hands” to denote the size of a horse is still used extensively today, despite its historical origins being deemed mysterious and uncertain. It is argued that this system has its roots in an ancient tradition with evidence pointing to several possible origins from multiple countries, potentially England, Ireland and Scotland, following their transition away from traditional Celtic measurements.

Some believe that hands refer to the length of a horse’s forearms from its elbow up to its fetlock, equivalent to three inches per hand. Others maintain that one hand simply refers to a single man’s palm spread out in a measure of four inches. Regardless, this numerical representation has been used for generations as an accurate means of universal measurement as it factors opposability and consistency into the equation by using a point of reference that can help farmers easily determine the height and size of horses worldwide.

The consensus among the majority believes that “hands” was the most reliable method of measurement available at the time due to its convenience in comparison to other tracking devices such as cumbersome measuring sticks commonly used in the 17th century. Its dependable accuracy allowed horse owners of all classes to customize or alter horses with ease while simultaneously recording their data without hassle or interruption.

Despite so much evidence pointing towards this ancient measurement system as the main source of inclusion for horse heights, there remain some discrepancies as to which country initially established this system and how it came about initially. It could easily be argued that whichever nation adopted this practice first set the standard which would be followed by other countries shortly afterwards. Ultimately, this continues to be a mystery shrouded in debate by historians who are determined to solve this riddle once and for all.

Leading into further exploration of this mystery, the next section delves into why “hands” is still used strongly today and its continuous presence around the world as a measure for horses.

The Worldwide Use of “Hands” to Measure Horses

The worldwide use of hands as a unit of measure for horses has long been common practice, with some debate on the types of hands used in different countries. The measurement is based on the approximate width of a human hand, typically from the fingertips to the thumb, which measures around four inches.

The most commonly accepted unit of measure is the English hand, which is 4.4 inches and one tenth of a meter. This standard originated in England and is still used by countries like the United States and Canada, though other nations have adopted their own measurements. For example, countries like Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and Switzerland use metric units instead of the English Hand.

The metric hand is equivalent to two-fifths of a meter and comes out to approximately 8.8 centimeters per DMS unit. In addition to using metric units, several other countries have adopted their own hand measurements that are slightly different than the English hand with slight variations in both size and accuracy.

In some cases, the variations can make it difficult to accurately compare horse heights across different countries, but they are generally within five percent accuracy, so they are typically considered equivalent or very similar measurements. This allows riders or buyers to easily compare sizes without having to convert numbers or look up different units of measure.

Overall, using “hands” as a unit of measure for horses is widespread among many countries, with slight variations in terms of accuracy or size depending on where you’re located and what type of horse you’re looking at. For the most part these slight changes make little difference when trying to compare sizes, but should be kept in mind if looking at horses from different nations specifically.

Common Questions and Explanations

Is measuring horses in hands still a widely used practice?

Yes, measuring horses in hands is still a widely used practice today. In the United States and many other countries around the world, horse owners, trainers and riders measure horses in height with a unit called "hands," which is equal to 4 inches. Additionally, many official competitions such as organized shows and races use horses' measurements in hands. This method allows participants to compare horses in a measured way and develop categories for each horse's size or breed. Furthermore, many organizations have adopted an international standard of measuring horses in hands—the Danish System of Højde Måling—to ensure consistent record-keeping between countries. Ultimately, measuring horses in hands is still one of the most popular methods of measuring a horse’s height today.

How is a horse's height measured in hands?

A horse's height is measured in hands, a unit of measurement equal to four inches. This is an ancient and traditional way of measuring horses and has been used for centuries in equestrian activities such as showing and racing. In this system, one hand equals four inches and each subsequent hand is added to the total measurement. For example, if a horse is sixteen hands (or 64 inches) high, it would be referred to as 16.2 or 16hh (hands high). This is an efficient way to measure a horse's height which eliminates the need for laborious conversions from inch or centimeter measurements. Beyond the practical advantages, measuring a horse in hands carries a certain air of tradition that many within the equestrian world find appealing.

What is the history of measuring horses in hands?

The history of measuring horses in hands is closely linked to the use of horses for breeding, farming and other purposes. The origin of the term "hand" comes from Anglo-Saxon measurements that were based on the width of a man’s hand which was approximately 4 inches. Without modern technology available, this was the most convenient way to measure the size of horses. It was widely accepted by horsemen across Europe during medieval times and eventually became formalised as a standard unit of measurement by the English Jockey Club in 1793.

Prior to this, there had been other methods used, such as basing it off a man’s arm length or even simply describing a horse as having long legs or short legs. However, measuring in hands provided a more accurate and consistent way to quantify the size of horses, which was especially important when it came to evaluating potential offspring for breeding. It's no surprise then why measuring horses in hands has remained popular for centuries despite better technological solutions being available today.

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