How Are Horses Measured? How & Why They’re Measured In Hands


“Your horse is 15 hands high? What does that mean?” “What is a hand anyway?” “Where do you measure the height of a horse?” These are all questions I’ve been asked before, but I get it. When I first started with horses I didn’t know any of this information or the answers to these questions either!

So How Are Horses Measured?

Horses are measured from the ground to their withers in a measurement unit known as ‘hands.’ One hand is equivalent to four inches. This means that if a horse is 16 hands high, it stands at just over 5 feet and 3 inches at the withers. The abbreviation for ‘hands high’ is just seen as ‘hh.’

Why Are Horses Measured in Hands?

Horses are measured in hands because a long time ago it was difficult to get a measurement of a horse. This was because measuring tools were hard to find and not very accessible to people.

The reason the measuring unit is called a ‘hand’ is because horse owners would measure their horses using their hands. If you hold your hand horizontally with your thumb pointing at the sky, your four fingers or entire hand will measure at around four inches (for me it’s more like three inches).

The people measuring the horse would then see how many hand-widths the horse measured out to be from the ground to the withers.

This is still the same measurement unit used for finding the height of horses, ponies, donkeys, mules, and burros, though today we have special measurement tools for determining the height of a horse.

Why Are Horses Measured At The Withers And Not Their Ears or Back?

Horses aren’t measured at the tips of their ears for a few reasons. The first reason being it would be very difficult to get a horse to stand perfectly still to get measured. If a horse is head-shy or acting up for the measurement, it would be really hard to get an accurate reading.

Another reason horses aren’t measured to their ears is the fact that different horses and different breeds will have different head-carriages. An example would be measuring a Saddlebred from the tips of their ears as compared to the Western Quarter Horse. Both horses might be fifteen hands at the withers, but if the measurement was from the ground to the ears, the Saddlebred would measure much taller.

Another reason the horse is measured at the withers is the fact that it is a stable area that will remain the same height for the duration of the horse’s life. A horse shouldn’t be measured at the back because older horses can get a swayed back which would mean their height decreases over time and that is not true.

Overall, the horse’s withers are the safest, most accurate, and most stable place to measure the height of a horse.

At How Many Hands High Is A Horse Considered A Pony?

A horse is considered a pony if it measures under 14.2 hands high. This is because most pony breeds only reach that height, if not less. To register a horse or pony for competition, a horse that measures less than 14.2 hands high must be registered as a pony. If a pony measures anything more than 14.2 hands high, it is then considered a horse. This only happens with larger breeds of ponies such as the Connemara pony from Ireland, or the Highland pony from Scotland.

At How Many Hands Is A Pony Considered Big? Or Small?

A large pony would measure to be around 13 to 14 hands high. This is large for a pony as they are still big enough for a smaller adult to ride, and they are just shy a few inches of being considered a horse. Examples of large pony breeds are the Connemara pony, the New Forest pony, the Hackney, the Haflinger, the Fell pony, and the Highland pony. Some horse breeds that are smaller in size, such as the Arabian, can be considered ponies too.

A medium-sized pony would measure between 10 and 13 hands high. An older child could ride one of these ponies without a problem. This size of pony would make a great ‘upgrade’ from a smaller breed if a child is riding these ponies in competitions, for lessons, or for fun. This way the child has a pony to ‘grow into.’ Examples of medium-sized ponies would be the American Shetland, the Welsh pony, the Dartmoor pony and the Exmoor pony.

A small pony would be a pony smaller than 10 hands high. Examples of this are the Shetland pony, the Falabella, the Noma pony, and the Yonaguni pony.

Fun Fact: Smaller ponies, often the ones that are smaller than 9 hands high are only measured in centimetres rather than hands!

At How Many Hands Is A Horse Considered Big? Or Small?

A big horse, more like a colossal horse, can reach up to 20 hands high. This is more commonly seen in draft horses or coldblooded horses rather than hot-bloods and warmbloods. Big horses stand anywhere from 17.2 to 20 hands high. Large horse breeds include Clydesdales, Belgians, Shires, Percherons, and Norikers.

A medium-sized horse stands at around 15.2 to 17.2 hands high. Some smaller cold-blooded horses fall into this category, but mainly this size consists of warm-bloods and some hot-bloods. Examples of medium-sized horses are Quarter horses, Thoroughbreds, Hanoverians, Paint Horses, Dutch Warmbloods, Friesians, Morgans, and Akhal-Tekes.

Small horses are any horse that is smaller than 15.2 hands high, but taller than 14.2 hands high. Some Quarter Horses are considered small, but the breeds that are usually found in this category are Arabians, Large ponies (now considered horses are they are over 14.2 hands high), and some Missouri Fox Trotters (my Missouri Fox Trotter was only about 14.3 hands high).

FAQs On Horses’ Height & How They Are Measured

How do I measure my horse’s height?

  • Step 1: Make sure your horse is standing on a flat, stable surface
  • Step 2: Have someone hold your horse steady and straight. If no one is around, tie your horse to a fence or other solid structure.
  • Step 3: Take a measuring tape and measure your horse from the ground to the top of their withers (if you don’t have a measuring tape, a string works just fine. Just mark where the top of the withers are and where the ground is on the string)
  • Step 4: Take the measurement in inches and divide that number by four. (if you measured the height with a string, measure the string and do the same thing)

What if my horse measures at 15 hands and 2 inches? How would I record my horse’s height?

Because your horse is measured at 15 hands and 2 inches, you would write the measurement as 15.2 hh (hands high).

If your horse measures at 15 hands and 4 inches, your horse would actually be considered 16 hh (hands high).

The decimal and number following the number of hands your horse measures at just means ‘and however many inches.’ In this example, the horse that measures 15.2 hands high, is just 15 hands and 2 inches tall.

Hailey Johnson

Horses have been my passion ever since I can remember. At school, I was known as that weird horse girl, and I would read horse encyclopedias for fun. Over the years since those days, I have only learned more. My experiences with horses of a variety of breeds have taught me a lot. Now I want to share what I know with you!

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