How did one of the most majestic creatures get the term "hands" when they're measured and why is it still used today?
Horses are some of the most beautiful and magnificent creatures alive. They're regal, kind, hardworking, and such fun to ride. But do you know how these beautiful animals are measured? It's with a unit of measurement called a "Hand". Seriously, we aren't making this up! A "hand" is an ancient unit of measurement equal to four inches and is still commonly the breadth of a man's hand. It is used to measure the horse at the highest point of its withers, which is the highest part of its back that doesn't move. But this unit of measurement doesn't include its head and neck, so even if a horse is 15 hands tall, that's only from the ground to its withers - and it has a beautiful stoic neck and head sitting on top of this "hand" measurement.
The "hand" measurement is written by the whole number of hands followed by the remaining inches of the horse, ex: 15.4 hands. When using this measurement sometimes it takes on the form of a noun - so when referring to the horse, it becomes its number. So if a horse was measured at 15.4 hands it becomes a "Fifteen Four". But where did this unit of measurement come from and why has it stuck around for so long?
The first system of measurement appeared in Ancient Egypt. Their system of measurement was based on the Royal Cubit. A Cubit is the length of a man's arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Units of various lengths like a Royal Cubit were used by the Hebrews, Greeks, and the Romans. The "Hand" used to include (confusingly) both the fist and the palm and was measured at 7.61cm. This changed in 1541 to clear up any confusion when King Henry VIII of England decided to change it to the breadth of the hand. This became the traditional measurement of 4 inches. The actual measurement was based on the palm of the King's hand from one of his statues. Once the unit was changed under the King's rule, it has been used to measure horses ever since.
Today the measurement of a "hand" isn't used for anything else except measuring horses. Almost everywhere in the world today still uses the "hand" unit except the FEI (International Federation of Equestrian Sports) and most European countries. They use meters and centimeters when measuring the horse. The "hand" measurement is still used today by so many because it has been used for so long. So much of a horse's common measurements are based off of the "hand" and have been for so long that it would be hard to implement a change. Even those countries who have changed it, that still took time to get used to. It is also still a practical way of measuring an animal where ever you might find yourself and is an easy form of measurement to communicate. At least for those who are used to measuring this way!
The largest horse ever to be recorded was named Sampson. He was a Shire Horse Gelding born in England in 1846. He stood at 21.2 1/2 hands high, standing at almost 7.5 feet. The biggest horse in the world today is Big Jake the Belgian Gelding horse. He became the tallest horse in the world on January 19, 2010 standing at 20 hands and 2.75 in tall, which is almost 7 feet tall!
The smallest horse ever to be recorded is Thumbelina, a Dwarf Miniature Horse who was born in 2001. She stands at 17 inches or 4.25 hands!
The next time you come and ride horses with us at Middleton, make sure you ask how many hands tall your horse stands! I bet it will still surprise you even after reading this!