Last Updated on December 1, 2021
Horses are strong, athletic animals with magnificent bodies! But what about their skeleton – do they have more bones than smaller animals? Let’s take a look at just how many bones there are in a horse!
How Many Bones In A Horse Skeleton?
Horses are very large, especially when we compare them to other domesticated animals such as cats and dogs. But does this mean that they have more bones, or are their bones just super-sized?
Horses have an average of 205 bones in their body. This is a similar amount to humans, but far fewer than some other land-based mammals:
- Adult humans have 206 bones
- Cats have 230 bones
- Dogs have 320 bones
The skeleton of a horse is incredibly strong and mobile and enables the horse to run at high speeds over rough terrain. Let’s take a look at the key parts of the horse skeletal system:
The first thing to note is that the skeleton can be divided into two parts. The first of these is the axial skeleton, and is made up of the following parts:
The skull of the horse is large and very heavy. The main bones of the skill are the jawbones – the lower mandible and the upper maxilla. These contain the teeth and need to work incredibly hard to chew food for many hours each day.
The upper part of the skull contains many holes, called sinuses. These are used during respiration to warm and moisten the air and filter out dirt. The sinuses also help to lighten the weight of the large skull.
The top of the skull attaches to the vertebral column, also known as the spine. This is a continuous line of vertebrae, running from the base of the skull right to the end of the tail. It is split into several different sections:
- Cervical spine – 7 vertebrae, which make up the bones of the neck
- Thoracic spine – 18 vertebrae that run along the top of the chest (thorax). This is where the ribs originate.
- Lumbar spine – 6 vertebrae, located where the saddle is placed.
- Sacral spine – the section of the spine over the pelvis, consisting of 5 vertebrae that are fused together.
- Coccygeal spine – the tail section, containing from 18 to 23 vertebrae.
The final section of the axial skeleton is the rib cage. This consists of 18 pairs of ribs, stemming from the thoracic vertebrae. At the lower part of the rib cage these are connected at the sternum, also called the breastbone.
The second part of the horse skeleton is the appendicular skeleton. This is made up of the parts that support the weight of the horse and enable it to move:
In all four limbs of the horse, the lower leg anatomy is virtually identical. From below the knee or hock, the horse has a strong, thick bone that can bear a lot of weight. This is called the cannon bone.
Below this, the horse has three shorter bones – the first, second, and third phalanx. This is the flexible section at the bottom of the horse’s leg and contains the hoof. There are also some smaller bones, called sesamoid bones, which are present to help ligaments move freely.
The upper sections of the front and hind legs in the horse have many anatomical differences. From the top, the forelimb consists of a large shoulder bone, then a strong radius and ulna below the elbow. These are connected to the cannon bone by the carpus.
These bones have great strength and an impressive range of movement. A horse can pull its forelegs forwards and upwards through a huge range of motion.
The upper hindleg is a very powerful and complex structure. At the top, it consists of the pelvis, which is connected to the spinal column. Below this is the femur, then the tibia and fibula. These connect to the cannon bone below the hock joint.
The hindleg is responsible for powerful forward movement and is the reason that horses can accelerate incredibly quickly.
Is Horse Bones Anatomy The Same In All Breeds?
The vast majority of horses all have the same number of bones. However, there is one notable exception – the noble Arabian!
The Arabian horse is famous for having fewer bones than other breeds of horse. This is because, in some Arabians, the spinal column is shorter. This occurs at the section called the thoracic spine, where the ribs are joined to the spinal column and curve around the chest.
Because the thoracic spine is shorter in Arabians, this means they sometimes have fewer ribs than other breeds of horses. All other horses have 18 pairs of ribs, whilst Arabians may only have 17 pairs.
Do Horses Have The Same Bones As Humans?
There is one key difference between horses and humans, and that is that horses do not have a collarbone.
The collarbone, or clavicle, is the bone that connects the human shoulder to the sternum – the center of the chest. This helps to strengthen and stabilize the human shoulder. If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to break your collarbone you will know how unstable it feels until it heals!
So how do horses manage without a collarbone? Instead, they have an incredibly strong and complex network of tendons, ligaments, and muscles that do the same job. This is called the thoracic sling.
With this adaptation, horses can extend their forelegs much more easily, enabling them to run at high speeds and jump tall obstacles. It also means they can carry a rider, which is great news for us horse fans! The thoracic sling is also a good shock absorber and helps the horse to carry out intricate movements with ease.
The most incredible thing about this whole system is that the equine foreleg is not actually connected to the spine of the horse by bone!
So, as we have learned, the skeleton of a horse is an incredibly complex and amazing body system! Horses have around 205 bones in total, and their skeletal system is very similar to other land-based mammals such as humans and cattle. However, there are key differences that enable horses to run faster and jump higher than many other creatures.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the bones of a horse. Are you amazed at the size and strength of a horse’s bone? Or maybe you have some questions about the horse’s skeletal system? Please add your comments below and we’ll get back to you!
Learn more about Horse Competition Types.
Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then went on to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their four-legged friends.
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN EVN VN A1 PGCE