How to measure a racehorse

05 November, 2010

High Horse
Comparing human hands with standard hand when measuring a horse's height.
Source: Questacon

The opening of Scienceworks’ newest exhibition, Measure Island coincides with Melbourne Cup week, presenting a timely opportunity to explain some of the unusual units used in horseracing!

Measure Island examines the concepts of good measurement, how different systems have developed through history, and some of the measurement techniques that scientists use. Visitors can discover the difference between accuracy and precision, objective and subjective measurements and find out about research into measurement systems all in a fictional long-lost civilisation.

Measuring horses

One of the feature exhibits is Horse High, which demonstrates how to measure a horse. While the height of a human is measured from the ground to the top of the head, the height of horses is measured from the ground to the highest point on their shoulders (or withers). Originally horses were measured using the width of the owner’s hands. The trouble with this method was that different people have slightly different hand widths. So today, a standard hand is defined as four inches or 10.16 centimetres.

Horses shorter than 14.2 hands high (hh) are generally referred to as ‘ponies’. The world’s shortest horse, Thumbelina, was only 4.1hh and the famous race horse, Phar Lap was 17.1hh.


Horse racetracks were originally measured in furlongs. A furlong is one eighth of a mile (220 yards or 660 feet). ‘Furlong’ is derived from two old English words -  furh, meaning furrow and lang, meaning long. A furlong was originally the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. The United Kingdom, USA, Canada and Ireland still measure horse races in furlongs and miles in contrast to Australia which converted to metric measurements for horse racing in 1972, but the legacy of this unit remains in Melbourne's city planning. The city blocks in Melbourne's Hoddle Grid are each one furlong in length.

Originally the Melbourne Cup was run over two miles or 16 furlongs. The race was reduced in length by just under 19 metres when it was converted to the metric system and is now run over 3200 metres.


A margin is the distance between the winning horse in a race and the second and third horses. Margins are measured in lengths of the horse, which is on average a little over two metres. Margins smaller than a length include a neck, a half neck, a half-head, a short half-neck and a nose.

In 1946 the photo finish camera was introduced to Flemington racetrack, the home of the Melbourne Cup. This technology helped to decide the margins in very close races. Before the photo finish camera was introduced, horses that ran a dead heat would have to run a second or in some cases even a third, deciding race.


The record for the fastest Melbourne Cup race was set by Kingston Rule in 1990. This horse completed the distance in 3 minutes, 16.3 seconds. This equates to an average speed of 58.7 kilometres per hour.

Measure Island is on display at Scienceworks until 1 May 2011.

Comments (1)

sort by
Bree 23 February, 2013 22:10
We are trying to work out how tall Phar Lap was from foot to the top of his head, even though this is not the way to measure horses. Our kids are curious? Can you tell us please? Interesting page you have here Thanks
Write your comment below All fields are required

We love receiving comments, but can’t always respond.