Are Horse Legs Fingers? The Myth Debunked

One of the strangest myths (or unanswered questions) amongst equestrians, horse lovers, and every individual alike is the age-old conundrum: do horses have fingers?

It seems like a silly question, but turns out the answer might be the exact opposite of what you were expecting. 

Surely horses don’t have fingers because we cannot see them in the way humans, monkeys, and even cats and dogs have fingers? There is a myth, however, that horses do have fingers, just not in the way you might expect them to. So, does that mean that horses legs are fingers? 

If you’ve clicked on this article, odds are you’re confused and wanting to know more about how horses might have fingers. We have debunked the myth for you, so here is everything you need to know about the bizarre age-old question: are horse legs fingers?

Are Horse Legs Fingers?

Let’s answer the question as simply as possible: yes, horses technically have fingers. Emphasis on the word “technically”, because they don’t have fingers in the way you’d expect.

This is because while horses have their own version of fingers, it doesn’t mean that their legs are their fingers. A horse’s legs are merely legs – they just have fingers hidden inside them. 

So, we can all agree that a horse’s legs and hooves do not look like regular human or animal fingers. This is why this statement is considered a myth, but scientific and historic evidence proves otherwise.

The Scientific And Historical Explanation

Scientific evidence has proven that in the earliest days of gestation, horses exhibited several clusters of developing cells that seemed to be in a formation similar to fingers. Five fingers, in fact, according to biologists. The reason these cell clusters no longer exist is because of evolution. 

Horses have existed for millions of years. During these years, horses have had to adapt to varying climates and environments.

We all know that horses 55 million years ago didn’t look the same as horses we know today, and that’s because of evolution. 55 million years ago saw a huge drop in the global climate, which led to a huge change in habitats.

The forests that horses once roamed became grasslands, which essentially meant that the body parts they once had were no longer necessary. 

Instead of running through uneven forest grounds filled with vines, tree trunks, and an abundance of rocks and foliage, horses only needed to use their primary defense of running on grasslands (which were vastly more even than forest grounds).

Their limbs had to adapt to improve their fast movements in this new habitat and prevent injuries. This means that instead of needing five fingers, their legs and hooves adapted to support just one finger – the middle finger.  

Is A Horse Hoof A Middle Finger?

Yup – you’ve read that right. The hoof of a horse is their middle finger. This means their legs evolved from having five fingers to four, four fingers to three, three fingers to two, and then two fingers to one. 

Technically speaking, the middle finger is actually embedded inside the hoof, rather than it being the hoof itself.

Inside the hoof, biologists have examined lateral splints that resemble the second and third finger (pointer and middle fingers). These splints feature ridges at the sides of them, which are believed to be fingers one and five (thumb and pinky finger). 

This middle finger is far bigger than you might think. The middle finger starts from the carpus (the knee, or their wrist), with the finger bone (known as the cannon) travelling all the way to the fetlock joints.

The other fingers, however, have not made it far enough down the fetlock joint, which is why horse hooves are technically their middle fingers. 

So, what happened to the other finger bones? As a foal, the two other main finger bones (digits two and four) don’t go down to the fetlock joint, and instead attach themselves to the cannon bone (the middle finger). This is what the lateral splints are.

While the demands of a horse are minimal at such a young age, these bones seem to somewhat float around until maturity, when they finally attach themselves to the cannon bone.

Once this happens, the horse then has better resistance from sideways forces – which is partly why young horses are so wobbly on their feet!

Why Do Horses Stand On One Finger?

There’s no definitive answer for this question. However, what we can gather from scientific research is that when horses 55 million years ago exhibited three or four fingers, they were only around the size of a dog.

While it might seem ironic that as the horses evolved into a larger animal they no longer needed the other fingers, this is because it is believed that standing on one finger was more beneficial for resisting bone stress.

Too many bones in the same leg causes stress when the animal is large, rendering the extra fingers almost entirely unnecessary. 

Front Legs VS Back Legs

Time to confuse you even more. It is argued by most scientists that only the front legs of a horse are said to have fingers rather than the back legs, which potentially have their own version of toes. With this in mind, it cannot be possible to say that the horse’s legs are their fingers. 

Does That Mean A Hoof Is A Nail?

With the middle finger evidence in mind, this means that a horse’s hoof isn’t a foot at all – it is just one big tough finger nail. This makes sense because, like with a human’s finger nails, the hoof will continue to grow and needs trimming.

Also like a human’s fingernail, horses don’t feel their hooves as the hooves don’t have nerve endings. You’ve never felt pain in your nail as you’ve trimmed it, and the same goes for horses! 

This fact is the main reason why people assume a horse’s legs are their fingers. Surely, if a horse is standing on tough fingernails, then it means their legs are their fingers, right?

Remember that horse’s fingers aren’t the same as human or other animal ones – their finger bones are hidden inside their legs. 

Do Horses Have Toes?

The terms “toes” and “fingers” can be used interchangeably within this article. It’s common to say that horses must have toes because they walk on their feet like pretty much every mammal, but this isn’t technically true.

We have explained that horses still have fingers that are invisibly embedded in their legs, but you can always use the term “toes” instead of “fingers”. To answer this question simply, yes, horses have toes in the same way they have fingers – they are just the same thing! 

What Is That Thing On A Horse’s Leg?

Most horses have a “thing” on their legs that looks something like exposed bark or a raw walnut. If you’ve ever touched this “thing”, you’ll know it’s quite hard to the touch. These “things” are called Chestnuts! 

It is believed that a Chestnut is a vestigial toe (or finger) that was once considered a necessary part of the limb some 55 million years ago. The horse’s earliest ancestor was the Eohippus, which required three or four fingers to balance on due to their shorter height.

It is believed that the Chestnut is one of the fingers (potentially even the pinky finger) that was no longer needed as horses evolved into the animal we know today.

This is why a Chestnut is known as a vestigial toe/finger, because it was clearly something that was once useful that has since been rendered functionless during the course of evolution. 

Does This Mean We Can Call A Horse’s Leg A Finger?

To be honest, the only reason we call horse’s legs “legs” is because they resemble legs in the same way that mammals have legs. On the outside, they function in the same way as human legs, dog legs, cow legs, pig legs, etc. However, the inside is a different story. 

Due to the complex bone and muscle structure of a horse’s legs, especially the giant middle finger bone and evidence of other smaller (yet now non-existent) fingers, then it is safe to assume that we can call a horse’s leg a finger.

Especially as the hoof isn’t a foot or a shoe – it’s a nail. Technically speaking, you wouldn’t be wrong to say that a horse’s leg is a finger. 

So…Are Horse Legs Fingers?

If you’ve made it through this article and you’re still utterly baffled, here are the basic points to answer this question. 

  • Technically, a horse’s legs are not their fingers because they function in the same way as regular mammal legs (at least on the outside). However, the inside tells a different story, because horses have one giant middle finger running from their knee/wrist to the fetlock, which is why people say that horse legs are their fingers. 
  • The hoof of a horse isn’t actually it’s foot – it’s a nail. This is another reason why people call their legs fingers, because it’s similar to a fingernail! 
  • It all comes down to adaptation and evolution. 55 million years ago saw the horse’s earliest ancestor, the Eohippus, which was a dog-sized animal that had three or four fingers or toes to walk on. As evolution developed, climate change happened, and the animals were forced to adapt overtime, the need for multiple fingers was unnecessary for the horses. Horses were growing larger, which meant that any extra small bones would add to bone stress. Thus, the need for other bones (or fingers) was rendered useless, except for the giant middle finger bone that is essential for balance and movement. 
  • While horse fingers aren’t visible to the human eye (at least without touch), the Chestnut on a horse’s leg is a vestigial toe/finger that is further proof that multiple fingers weren’t needed for modern day horses. These Chestnuts are technically the only visible remnant of a finger we can see on a horse. 

To put it simply – it’s not exactly wrong to say that horse legs are fingers. It’s also not entirely wrong to say that horse legs are legs that have finger bones inside them. 

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