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7 Essential Reasons Horses Have Hooves Instead of Toes

Last updated: February 16, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

As I picked my horses’ hooves, my grandson asked me why they didn’t have toes. He had been reading articles about animals and wondered if horses didn’t have them because they don’t move around the same way as other creatures do. Coincidentally I’ve often wondered the same.

Horses don’t have toes because they have little need to grasp or climb, plus hooves help distribute weight and protect the sensitivity inside of a horse’s foot. Hooves also give horses the ability to run fast over any terrain.

Animals are fascinating creatures. They each have their own unique adaptations to suit the environment they live in. Horses, for example, are uniquely designed to be the perfect running animal, and their hooves play a significant role.

If this sparks your curiosity, I suggest sticking around as I discuss how Evolution helped our beloved creatures become who they are in our modern age.

Picture of horses hooves,

The evolution of the hoof

Millions of years of Evolution helped horses develop the strong hooves we see today. Before they evolved, they had five functional toes and were much slower and smaller in size. Over the years, they lost their toes as their middle toe grew into the large hoof that we see on them today.

Over time, as the horse’s body mass grew more significant with evolution, it caused its middle toe to develop into a single hoof, causing them to lose function in the smaller toes, which eventually shrunk and disappeared.

Horses evolved into more powerful, giant creatures; having a single large toe provided more stability and resistance to bone stress than having several toes. According to recent studies, the earliest trace of Horses were small creatures, no bigger than your average cat or dog.

They had four toes in their front legs and three toes in their back legs. As they grew in size, their toes started to vanish until they relied only on their middle toe, which gave them the balance they needed for their immense size.

Over many years and Evolution, Horses learned how to adapt and survive in the world without using their remaining four toes, which is how they evolved into having one toe per leg.

With time, the remaining toes became the little stumps we see today on the side of their hooves, also known as Metapodials. However, new studies have shown us that during the first four weeks of conception, the embryos have five toes just like us, and as the weeks progress, the middle toe grows more prominent, while the remaining toes merge and reduce in size.

When the embryo is around two months old, all that is left is its middle toe. Horses evolved into becoming the only animal to have a single toe per leg. The change occurred because as horses grew more prominent, their single toe provided balance and stability while allowing them to travel fast and far with ease.

Due to their evolutionary development, they adapted to living with only one toe, which allowed them to learn how to roam the world successfully on their hooves and helped them gain the strength and speed they possess today.

They have proven to have evolved perfectly fine without needing the extra digits to survive; thanks to this evolutionary change, they were able to adjust to their hooves, giving them more control of their body.

Horses have evolved over the years from small dog-sized creatures to the massive horses we see today. This is due to a variety of factors, but the most important one is that horses have traits that have allowed them to adapt and survive in a changing world.

For example, horses have strong hooves that allow them to run quickly and travel long distances. They also have good eyesight and hearing, which allows them to detect predators and avoid potential danger. These adaptations have allowed horses to thrive in many different environments.

Picture of a horse's hoof on a stand.

How many toes do modern horses have?

Although many Equine Scientists will argue that horses have only one toe per foot, recent studies have discovered that horses still have five toes on each foot, just in different stages of development.

With evolution comes transformations done to the Horses, but that doesn’t entirely mean that the remaining four digits are non-existent in their feet. Some researchers claim that the horse’s hoof is the remaining middle toe that adapted to Evolution and survived into our modern world.

They further surmise that the second and third toes developed into the splint bones, which are located on both sides of their canon bones, while the first and second toes got absorbed during the embryonic development process.

Contrarily, another group of researchers claims that a horse’s first and fifth toe did not get reabsorbed during Evolution; but they are in unrecognizable forms.

Picture of a horse's hoof.

Is a hoof a toe?

No matter which theory you believe in, we can all agree that it is a shocker to everyone to learn that hooves are indeed a part of what makes up a horse’s toe! That said, could their hooves be what remains of their “toes”? Let’s find out!

A Horse’s hooves are very complex; they are made up of several parts that all have different purposes and hwork together to maintain them healthy and strong.

The three different areas are:

  • The Outer Structures
  • Under the Hoof
  • The Inner Framework

To help you understand a little better, I will go over the differences and what each area provides for our beloved Horses.

The Outer Structures

The Outer Structure consists of the Hoof walls, the Coronary Band, the Periople, and their Inner walls, and each has its purpose in its well-being.

The name says it all; the Hoof walls are the first parts of the hoof you see on their feet. It is a hard outer covering that protects the delicate structures within them, and they support the weight of the Horse, absorbing shock as they walk.

Hooves can be either white or black, and it is a rigid surfaces that cannot stretch when their tissues get swollen due to injuries pertained. The top part of the wall, known as the Coronary band, is where the Horse’s hairline meets its hoof.

Although it may seem like it has a strong exterior, it is a critical part of their hoof as it is the primary growth and source of nutrition for the hoof wall.

It stores an ample blood supply, and any damage caused to this part of the hoof can result in severe damage to the hoof walls and cause your Horse to become unrideable, as it can disrupt any proper hoof growth.

The Periople is located just below the Coronary band and aids in protecting the soft wall. It helps protect the newly formed hoof tissues, allowing them some time to harden.

Picture of the bottom of a horses foot, It doesn't look like toes.

Under the Hoof

This section includes everything under their hooves, such as the Sole, Frog, Central Sulcus, and the Bars. Although the Sole is the underside of the foot, this part does not contact the ground as a part of it is a bit hollow.

One primary purpose of the Sole is to protect the inner workings of the hoof, and its unique design allows them to bear the internal weight transferred via the border of the sole instead of the weight from the ground.

One of its most important areas is the “white line,” as some call it, the junction between the hoof wall and the sole. The tissues found within these white lines help attach the sole to the inner wall of the hoof.

Once you pick up a Horse’s feet, you’ll automatically see the “Frog,” which is the thick, sturdy V-shaped structure that points down from their heels. It has a vital role in protecting the cushion underneath and aids in traction and circulation.

The Frog is responsible for communicating with your horse by using its sensitive nerves to help him feel the surface of the ground he stands on. The grooves located on the center side of the Frog are the Central Sulcus.

If a Horse has contracted hooves, they usually have a more narrow sulcus, increasing the chances of harboring germs that can lead to thrush.

Lastly, the Bars are the extensions of the hoof wall that come in at the heel, which helps strengthen the heel area and helps support the Horse’s weight.

cleaning.hoofs edited

The Inner Framework

The last of the sections include the Digital Cushion, the Coffin Bone, and the Navicular Bone. Their Digital Cushion is right below the Coffin Bone that is toward the back of the hoof. It provides a cushion of cartilaginous material, which acts as a shock absorber for the Horses.

The Coffin Bone sits as the bottom bone near the toe, surrounded by particular tissues that make up the laminae of the wall. It is the most prominent bone in the hoof and helps shape the hoof wall.

Punctures to the Sole and rotations of the Coffin bone can increase the chances of Lameness. Finally, the Navicular Bone is the small bone behind the Coffin Bone and the Pastern Bone, and its role in the hooves is to help stabilize the Coffin Bone by allowing for some tilt over some uneven ground.

7 Reasons Horses have hoofs instead of toes.

Horses have hoofs instead of toes. But why? There are many theories as to the reason for this, and they vary from folklore to scientific fact. One theory is that horses descended from a group of animals known as Hyracotherium, which had five toes on each foot but evolved over time to have only one toe, like their modern descendants.

  • Horses developed hoofs when their food source was scarce. The development of tougher skin and hooves helped to support them on the ground easier than other animals who may have been more vulnerable due to lack of protection around their feet.
  • Hooves give horses the ability to run fast over any terrain.
  • Hooves are shaped to help horses grip slippery surfaces like snow or ice;
  • Hooves help distribute weight evenly;
  • The horse’s hoof absorbs shock during movement;
  • The horse’s hoof’s tough outer layer protects its sensitive inner foot;
  • Horses’ feet have “sensitive nerves” that help them know where their feet are and what the surface they’re standing on feels like.

Below is a helpful YouTube video that explains the importance of maintaining your horses hooves.

YouTube video


What animals have a single hoof?

The only animals with one toe are all members of the genus Equus, including zebras, horses, and donkeys. Equus is a genus of mammals that includes seven species and is part of the Equidae family.

Does a rhino have hooves?

Rhinos have delicate hooves covering the leading edge of each of their three toes. Their hooves are not very similar to equines with a single toe with hard-as-nails hooves.