Digit reduction is a major trend that characterizes horse evolution, but its causes and consequences have rarely been quantitatively tested. Using beam analysis on fossilized centre metapodials, we tested how locomotor bone stresses changed with digit reduction and increasing body size across the horse lineage. Internal bone geometry was captured from 13 fossil horse genera that covered the breadth of the equid phylogeny and the spectrum of digit reduction and body sizes, from Hyracotherium to Equus. To account for the load-bearing role of side digits, a novel, continuous measure of digit reduction was also established—toe reduction index (TRI). Our results show that without accounting for side digits, three-toed horses as late as Parahippus would have experienced physiologically untenable bone stresses. Conversely, when side digits are modelled as load-bearing, species at the base of the horse radiation through Equus probably maintained a similar safety factor to fracture stress. We conclude that the centre metapodial compensated for evolutionary digit reduction and body mass increases by becoming more resistant to bending through substantial positive allometry in internal geometry. These results lend support to two historical hypotheses: that increasing body mass selected for a single, robust metapodial rather than several smaller ones; and that, as horse limbs became elongated, the cost of inertia from the side toes outweighed their utility for stabilization or load-bearing.