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Horses and other equids are odd-toed ungulates of the order Perissodactyla, a relatively ancient group of browsing and grazing animals that first arose less than 10 million years after the dinosaurs became extinct. In the past, this order contained twelve families, but only three families—the horses and related species, tapirs and rhinoceroses—have survived till today. The earliest equids (belonging to the genus Hyracotherium) were found approximately 54 million years to the Eocene period. The Perissodactyls were the dominant group of large terrestrial browsing animals until the Miocene (about 20 million years ago), when even-toed ungulates, with stomachs better adapted to digesting grass, began to out compete them.
The horse as it is known today adapted by evolution to survive in areas of wide-open terrain with sparse vegetation, surviving in an ecosystem where other large grazing animals, especially ruminants, could not.
Horse evolution was characterised by a reduction in the number of toes, from five per foot, to three per foot, to only one toe per foot (late Miocene 5.3 million years ago); essentially, the animal was standing on tiptoe. One of the first true horse species was the tiny Hyracotherium, which had 4 toes on each front foot (missing the thumb) and 3 toes on each back foot (missing toes 1 and 5). Over about five million years, this early equids evolved into the Orohippus. The 5th fingers vanished, and new grinding teeth evolved. This was significant in that it signaled a transition to improved browsing of tougher plant material, allowing grazing of not just leafy plants but also tougher plains grasses. Thus the proto-horses changed from leaf-eating forest-dwellers to grass-eating inhabitants of the Great Plains.
By the Pleistocene era, as the horse adapted to a drier, prairie environment, the 2nd and 4th toes disappeared on all feet, and horses became bigger. These side toes were shrinking in Hipparion and have vanished in modern horses. All that remains are a set of small vestigial bones on either side of the cannon (metacarpal or metatarsal) bone, known informally as splint bones, which are a frequent source of splints, a common injury in the modern horse.