A horse’s height is measured from the ground to the highest point of the withers (orange line in the image below) and is expressed in centimetres or as hands high or hh.
The height of a horse isn’t a very absolute number because there are many factors that go into the height of a horse. Posture, muscle mass and the height of the hooves can all change the height of a horse considerably.
Usually, the most critical function of height is to determine whether you can compete in pony categories with your horse. If you compete with your horse, he’ll be officially measured once a year until he turns eight and is considered fully grown.
It’s important to know the height of a horse when you’re planning to ride it. Generally speaking, a taller person will ride more comfortable on a taller horse because the proportions of the horse will be better matched. The gait of a taller horse will, generally speaking, also be more comfortable for a taller person than riding a smaller horse or pony.
A large horse will generally also carry a heavier body more easily, though this is highly dependent on the health of the horse, the breed and the body. Some large horses with a long back aren’t adept at carrying larger weights in the saddle, though they’ll often be bred for pulling heavy loads.
There are also some smaller breeds that can carry a far bigger load than you would imagine at first glance.
Showing or participating in particular events might also require you to consider the aesthetics of the horse and rider (relative to each other) or a specific requirement size for the horse.
What equipment do you need to measure your horse’s height?
To measure how tall your horse is you can use a measuring tape, a double-sided weight tape or a measuring stick. All these items can be easily bought at a tack store.
The weight tape and measuring stick will already be measured out in whatever denominators are used in your country (kilos, pounds, centimetres, inches, hands etc.) and you won’t need to do any additional maths.
When your horse is shod, subtract the thickness of his shoes from the overall measurement. Alternately, you can measure him when the farrier visits and get a measurement without any shoes on.
How to measure how many hands high your horse is with a regular tape measure
Today, horses are one of the few things remaining that still use this standard of measurement. The measure of a hand remains at 4 inches.
Proper denotation of a horse’s height is with the number of whole hands followed by the number of parts of a hand or inches remaining. A 16-hand horse would be written 16hh or 16.0hh.
The possibilities are 16hh, 16.0hh (same thing), 16.1hh, 16.2hh or 16.3hh.
16.4hh is 17 hands, and 16.5hh is an incorrect way to write 16 and a half hands (16.2hh).
If you’re using a regular measuring tape, you’ll have do do a bit of math:
Measure your horse’s height in inches
With a normal measuring tape, you measure the horse from the ground to withers and divide the result with 4 to see how many hands you get.
One hand equals 4 inches, so if a horse is 40 inches high from ground to withers, it would then be 10 hands high.
If a horse is 43 inches high, it would be 10.3 hands high, because 3 inches is 3/4 of a full hand.
To be 11 hands high the horse would need to measure 44 inches high, and so on.
Measure your horse’s height in centimetres
With a normal measuring tape, you measure the horse from the ground to withers and divide the result with 10,6 to see how many hands you get.
Keep in mind, that height is typically not converted to hands in the metric system and the height of a horse is normally expressed directly in centimetres.
Some ways to predict how tall a foal is going to become when fully grown
Often, speculating how big and tall (and handsome or beautiful) a foal is going to grow up to be, is a favourite pastime.
And people have been trying to predict how large a horse is going to become throughout history.
I’d always been perplexed by how some people would pull a string out of their pocket and measure from a horse’s elbow to his fetlock or knee or point of the shoulder or some other measurement.
Then take the same distance from one of those points and extend the string and mark a point in the air anywhere from 3 to 10 inches above the withers and say, “See, this horse isn’t done growing.”
What the ancient Greeks say about the height of a horse
Xenophon, along with many others throughout history, noted that the shanks of all quadrupeds tend to grow very little as the animal matures. He writes, “that colt always turns out the largest whose shanks are longer at the time of foaling” in his treatise on horses from 2,300 years ago, “The Art of Horsemanship”.
Traditional Arabian methods for measuring a horse
There are also two traditional Arabian methods for predicting how tall a horse will become.
In the first, a measurement (A) is taken from the nostrils over the ears and down along the neck to the withers. This distance is compared with a measurement (B) from the withers to the foot.
The colt will grow as much taller as measurement A exceeds measurement B. So, A – B = how much more the horse will grow.
By the other method, the distance between the knee and the withers (C) is compared with that from the knee to the corona (D). If it has reached the proportion of two to one the horse will grow no taller.
An old horseman’s trick to find out how much more a young horse will grow
If you’ve got a young horse that’s still growing, you can use this method to estimate how tall your horse is going to be when fully grown.
Many years ago, an old-timer told me that when you measure on the front side of either front leg, the distance from the middle of the knee joint to the corona (E) will directly convert into hands high on the adult horse.
Getting the horse, especially foals, colts and fillies, to stand still long enough to get a good measurement can be tricky. Only take measurements involving the legs when your horse is standing squarely, evenly and with the pasterns evenly flexed.