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The English-speaking world measures the height of horses in hands, abbreviated "h" or "hh", for "hands high", measured at the highest point of an animal's withers, where the neck meets the back, chosen as a stable point of the anatomy, unlike the head or neck, which move up and down; one hand is 4 inches (10 cm). Intermediate heights are defined by hands and inches, rounding to the lower measurement in hands, followed by a decimal point and the number of additional inches between 1 and 3. Thus a horse described as "15.2 h", is 15 hands, 2 inches (62 in/160 cm) in height. The size of horses varies by breed, but can also be influenced by nutrition.
The general rule for cutoff in height between what is considered a horse and a pony at maturity is 14.2 hands (58 in/150 cm). An animal 14.2 h or over is usually considered to be a horse and one less than 14.2 h a pony. However, there are exceptions to the general rule. Some breeds which typically produce individuals both under and over 14.2 h are considered horses regardless of their height. Conversely, some pony breeds may have features in common with horses, and individual animals may occasionally mature at over 14.2 h, but are still considered to be ponies.
The distinction between a horse and pony is not simply a difference in height, but takes account of other aspects of phenotype or appearance, such as conformation and temperament. Ponies often exhibit thicker manes, tails and overall coat. They also have proportionally shorter legs, wider barrels, heavier bone, shorter and thicker necks, and short heads with broad foreheads. They often have calmer temperaments than horses and also a high level of equine intelligence that may or may not be used to cooperate with human handlers. In fact, small size, by itself, is sometimes not a factor at all. While the Shetland pony stands on average 10 hands high (40 in/100 cm), the Falabella and other miniature horses, which can be no taller than 30 inches (76 cm), the size of a medium-sized dog, are classified by their respective registries as very small horses rather than as ponies.
Light riding horses such as Arabians, Morgans, or Quarter Horses usually range in height from 14 to 16 hands (56 to 64 in/140 to 160 cm) and can weigh from 850 to 1,200 pounds (390 to 540 kg). Larger riding horses such as Thoroughbreds, American Saddlebreds or Warmbloods usually start at about 15.2 hands (62 in/160 cm) and often are as tall as 17 hands (68 in/170 cm), weighing from 1,100 to 1,500 pounds (500 to 680 kg). Heavy or draft horses such as the Clydesdale, Belgian, Percheron, and Shire are usually at least 16 to 18 hands (64 to 72 in/160 to 180 cm) high and can weigh from about 1,500 to 2,000 pounds (680 to 910 kg).
The largest horse in recorded history was probably a Shire horse named Sampson, who lived during the late 1800s. He stood 21.2½ hands high (86.5 in/220 cm), and his peak weight was estimated at 3,360 pounds (1,520 kg). The current record holder for the world's smallest horse is Thumbelina, a fully mature miniature horse affected by dwarfism. She is 17 inches (43 cm) tall and weighs 60 pounds (27 kg).
Horses exhibit a diverse array of coat colors and distinctive markings. A specialized vocabulary has evolved to describe them. Color is one of the first things that is noticed about a horse. Often, a horse is first described by its coat color rather than by breed or by sex.
While most horses remain the same color throughout life, a few, over the course of several years, will develop a different coat color from that with which they were born. Most white markings are present at birth, and the underlying skin color of a horse does not change, absent disease.