The height of a horse is measured in hands. This unit is defined as a length of 4".

How did this term come to be used as it is today?

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    See The “Hand” Measurement for Horses. This particular "unit of measure" was around long before anything like English existed, so it's not particularly meaningful to look for an "origin" of its use in English. – FumbleFingers Apr 13 '17 at 13:50
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    A number of European nations measured heights by hand-, palm-, or fist-based measures like the faust, empan, tvärhand, and so on, following from the classical tradition. – choster Apr 13 '17 at 14:00
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    Body parts have been used as the basis of measurements for millenia. "foot" is obvious, but "inch" was based on some ancient ruler's thumb, and both "yard" and "cubit" were based on the length of an outstretched arm. – Barmar Apr 13 '17 at 15:49
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    Wikipedia covers the entire topic pretty thoroughly, so it's a little unlikely you looked around on your own. Was there some aspect of the article that you had questions about? – lly Apr 13 '17 at 16:38
  • No. Not unlikely. I read two articles on Wikipedia. I did not see this one. The ones I read were thin and vague, at best. Thank you for your answer. – Jason P Sallinger Apr 13 '17 at 17:28

There were several customary units to choose from. One presumes handbreadths were used to measure the riding height of horses since they were large enough to be serviceable but small enough to preserve important differences between animals. There were several separate hand measurements.

The 4" hand became standard in England following the 1540 Acte "For Bryde of Horses" (32 Hen. VIII c. 13), which aimed to improve the breeding stock of the realm by banning on pain of forfeiture any "stoned horse" (=stallion) two years or older that was shorter than 14 (or, in some jurisdictions, 15) hands from lowest forehoof to highest wither

...every handfull to conteyne iiij ynches of the standard...

effective 1 April 1543. The importance of not having the king's men nab their nags presumably standardized everyone's measurements rather quickly.

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