Hand (unit)

The hand is a non-SI unit of measurement of length standardized to 4 in (101.6 mm). It is used to measure the height of horses in many English-speaking countries, including Australia,[1] Canada, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.[2] It was originally based on the breadth of a human hand. The adoption of the international inch in 1959 allowed for a standardized imperial form and a metric conversion. It may be abbreviated to "h" or "hh".[3] Although measurements between whole hands are usually expressed in what appears to be decimal format, the subdivision of the hand is not decimal but is in base 4, so subdivisions after the radix point are in quarters of a hand, which are inches.[2] Thus, 62 inches is fifteen and a half hands, or 15.2 hh (normally said as "fifteen-two", or occasionally in full as "fifteen hands two inches").[2]

The hand (2) and palm (3) measurements shown, among others, on a human hand


"Hands" may be abbreviated to "h", or "hh". The "hh" form is sometimes interpreted as standing for "hands high".[4][5][6] When spoken aloud, hands are stated by numbers, 15.0 is "fifteen hands", 15.2 is alternately "fifteen-two" or "fifteen hands, two inches", and so on.[5][6][7]

To convert inches to hands, the number in inches is divided by four, then the remainder is added after the radix point. Thus, a horse that measures 60 inches is 15 hands high (15 × 4 = 60) and a horse halfway between 15 and 16 hands is 15.2 hands, or 62 inches tall (15 × 4 + 2 = 62)[5][7] Because the subdivision of a hand is a base 4 system, a horse 64 inches high is 16.0 hands high, not 15.4.[2] A designation of "15.5 hands" is not halfway between 15 and 16 hands, but rather reads 15 hands and five inches, an impossibility in a base 4 radix numbering system, where a hand is four inches.[8]


Ancient Egypt

Detail of the cubit rod in the Museo Egizio of Turin, showing digit, palm, hand and fist lengths

The hand, sometimes also called a handbreadth or handsbreadth, is an anthropic unit, originally based on the breadth of a male human hand, either with or without the thumb,[2] or on the height of a clenched fist.[9]

On surviving Ancient Egyptian cubit-rods, the royal cubit is divided into seven palms of four digits or fingers each.[10] Five digits are equal to a hand, with thumb; and six to a closed fist.[11] The royal cubit measured approximately 525 mm,[12] so the width of the ancient Egyptian hand was about 94 mm.

Ancient Egyptian units of length[11]
NameEgyptian nameEquivalent Egyptian valuesMetric equivalentImperial equivalent
Royal cubit

meh niswt
7 palms or 28 digits525 mm     20.67 in
Fist6 digits108 mm     4.25 in
Hand5 digits94 mm     3.70 in
4 digits75 mm     2.95 in
1/4 palm19 mm     0.75 in

Biblical use

In Biblical exegesis the hand measurement, as for example in the Vision of the Temple, Authorized Version Ezekiel 40:43, is usually taken to be palm or handbreadth, and in modern translations may be rendered as "handbreadth"[13] or "three inches".[14]

United Kingdom

The hand is a traditional unit in the UK.[2] It was standardised at four inches by a statute of King Henry VIII in 1540,[15][16] but some confusion between the various types of hand measurement, and particularly between the hand and the handsbreadth, appears to have persisted. Phillips's dictionary of 1706 gives four inches for the length of the handful or hand, and three inches for the handsbreadth;[17] Mortimer gives the same, three inches for the Hand's-breadth, and four for the "Handful, or simply, Hand",[16] but adds "The hand among horse-dealers, &c. is four-fingers' breadth, being the fist clenched, whereby the height of a horse is measured", thus equating "hand" with both the palm and the fist. Similarly, Wright's 1831 translation of Buffon mentions "A hand breadth (palmus), the breadth of the four fingers of the hand, or three inches",[18] but the Encyclopædia Perthensis of 1816 gives under Palm (4): "A hand, or measure of lengths comprising three inches".[19]

Use in measuring horses

Today the hand is used to measure the height of horses,[2] ponies, and other equines. It is used in the US and also in some other nations that use the metric system, such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and the UK. In other parts of the world, including continental Europe and in FEI-regulated international competition, horses are measured in metric units, usually metres or centimetres. In South Africa, measurements may be given in both hands and centimetres,[2] while in Australia, the equestrian regulations stipulate that both measurements are to be given.[20]

In those countries where hands are the usual unit for measuring horse height, inches rather than hands are commonly used in the measurement of smaller equines including miniature horses/ponies,[21] miniature mules,[22] donkeys,[23] and Shetland ponies.[24]

A horse is measured from the ground to the top of the highest non-variable point of the skeleton, the withers.[2] For official measurement, the spinous process of the fifth thoracic vertebra may be identified by palpation, and marked if necessary.[25] Some varieties of Miniature horses are measured at the base of the last true hairs of the mane rather than at the withers.[21]

For international competition regulated by the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) and for USEF competition in the US, a horse can be measured with shoes on or off. In the United Kingdom, official measurement of horses is overseen by the Joint Measurement Board (JMB). For JMB purposes, the shoes must be removed and the hooves correctly prepared for shoeing prior to measurement.[25]

See also


  1. "Equestrian Australia Measuring Rules Effective 1 July 2008" (PDF). equestrian.org.au/. Equestrian Australia Limited. 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 January 2013. Retrieved 17 August 2014.
  2. "The "Hand" Measurement for Horses". Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ontario, Canada. Archived from the original on 22 August 2011. Retrieved 30 June 2011.
  3. Brander, Michael (1971). The Complete Guide to Horsemanship. London: A & C Black. p. 444. ISBN 0-7136-1701-2. p.409
  4. "How big is a hand?" AllHorseBreeds.info. Archived 2012-03-26 at the Wayback Machine
  5. Hand Conversion
  6. How to Measure a Horse | Horse Height and Weight
  7. Shlei. "Just how tall is a hand?". Measuring Equines. The American Donkey and Mule Society. Retrieved 19 May 2007.
  8. Measure Horse Height Accurately
  9. Good, J.M., O. Gregory, N. Bosworth (1813). Pantologia: A new cyclopaedia, comprehending a complete series of essays, treatises, and systems, alphabetically arranged; with a general dictionary of arts, sciences and words, the whole presenting a distinct survey of human genius, learning and industry; illustrated with engravings, those on history being from original drawings by Edwards and others. London: Kearsley.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) "Hand (2)"
  10. Selin, Helaine, ed. (1997). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in non-Western Cultures. Dordrecht: Kluwer. ISBN 978-0-7923-4066-9.
  11. Clagett, Marshall (1999). Ancient Egyptian Science, A Source Book. Volume 3: Ancient Egyptian Mathematics. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 978-0-87169-232-0.
  12. Lepsius, Richard (1865). Die altaegyptische Elle und ihre Eintheilung (in German). Berlin: Dümmler.
  13. Ezekiel 40:43 New International Version
  14. Ezekiel 40:43 New Century Version
  15. 32 Hen. VIII c. 13: An Acte for Bryde of Horses.
  16. Mortimer, Thomas (1810). A general dictionary of commerce, trade, and manufactures: exhibiting their present state in every part of the world; and carefully comp. from the latest and best authorities. London: R. Phillips.
  17. Phillips, Edward, John Kersey (ed.) (1706) The new world of words: or, Universal English dictionary. Containing an account of the original or proper sense, and various significations of all hard words derived from other languages. Together with a brief and plain explication of all terms relating to any of the arts and sciences; to which is added, the interpretation of proper names The sixth edition, revised ... With the addition of near twenty thousand words London
  18. Le Clerc, George Louis, Comte de Buffon (1831). A natural history of the globe: of man, of beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles, insects and plants Volume 5. John Wright (trans.). Boston; Philadelphia: Gray and Bowen; Thomas Desilver, Jr.
  19. [n.a.] (1816). Encyclopædia Perthensis; or Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, Literature, etc., intended to supersede the use of other books of reference, Volume 16.
  20. "Equestrian Australia Measuring Rules Effective 1 July 2008" (PDF). equestrian.org.au/. Equestrian Australia Limited. 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 January 2013. Retrieved 17 August 2014.
  21. "Show Rules. Standards of Excellence: Miniature & Small Horse". Australian Miniature Horse & Pony Registry. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  22. "About Miniature Mules". The American Miniature Mule Society. Archived from the original on 24 June 2011. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  23. "The Donkey". Government of Alberta: Agriculture and Rural Development. Archived from the original on 16 November 2012. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  24. Edwards, Elwyn Hartley (1994). The Encyclopedia of the Horse (1st ed.). London: Dorling Kindersley. ISBN 0-7513-0115-9. p.176
  25. "JMB measurement". The Joint Measurement Board. Archived from the original on 26 March 2012. Retrieved 30 June 2011.

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