Navicular Syndrome

Are America's horses getting lamer? Are we asking too much of them? Are they just not building (or breeding) them the way they used to? Call it what you like, but an epidemic of navicular-type lameness problems is sidelining an alarming percentage of our performance horses, causing early retirements, drops in performance levels, hard-to-measure pain and suffering for horses, and concern from owners.

The best treatment for a navicular-type lameness is avoiding it in the first place. The basic rules for healthy hooves and feet are simple: Hire the best farrier you can (interview several, ask about experience with lameness, and check references, specialized education, and certification levels) and keep the horse on as short a shoeing schedule as you can afford, even if the horse seems to grow wall slowly. Keeping the foot properly balanced and the shoe in the right position on the foot goes a long way toward helping the horse stay at a mechanical ideal.

When buying a new horse, you can obtain and keep radiographs from the pre-purchase examination. (The veterinarian owns the originals.) Mark the envelope with the horse's name, veterinarian contact information, and the date the radiographs were taken. Note which views of which feet were shot. These radiographs will become your reference tools in the event of any future foot problems.

In addition to good basic shoeing that will keep the foot supported and protected, your horse's feet will benefit from optimum nutrition. Many owners now feed hoof supplements containing methionine and biotin as a preventative aid, even to sound horses or horses with ideal hoof quality. Likewise, when a horse is heavily worked, shown at a high level, or advancing in age, owners might decide to add chondroitin sulfates and/or glucosamine to the daily feeding regimen. These products are believed to help the horse replenish spent joint fluid or enhance the joint fluid so that the horse enjoys maximum flexibility. Remember that the navicular bone is in the midst of the coffin joint, a complex, three-way junction among the short pastern bone, coffin bone, and navicular bone.

The condition of a horse's foot is dependent on the constant supply of blood to and from the foot; good circulation is important. Be careful not to misuse bell boots or pressure wraps; they are not meant to be left on a horse's legs for long periods of time. When you remove bandages or boots, take some time to rub the lower leg and massage the coronary band and the bulbs of the heels. If you have trouble wrapping legs or if your wraps unravel or slide down, invest in simple boots with velcro closures that fit properly.

Anticipate problems. Ask your farrier for any news on the circuit about different showgrounds where you will be competing. Everyone has heard nightmare stories of unusually dry summers where show arenas turn to concrete and riders trot their horses to the farrier tent for pads...after the horses have started to get ouchy. If you know you will be showing on hard surfaces, talk to your farrier about pads ahead of time. Did your horse need pads halfway through the summer last year? Plan on them again, but have them put on before the horse shows he needs them.

Look into using hoof packing products to condition dry feet, or drying solutions to toughen soft, "squishy" feet and soles. Use them according to the directions. Take care in applying and removing show blacking and polishes. While you might think that navicular syndrome is inside the foot, the ability of the foot to remodel itself as a response to stress is important, and it relies on a healthy, pliable outer foot.

Keep an eye on your horse's feet; watch for collapsing heels, or for a "shelf" of hoof wall that forms above the heel of the shoe. Talk to your farrier about applying support shoes before you have a lameness problem.

Most veterinarians and farriers agree that navicular-type lameness is the foot's response to stress, particularly repetitive stress that can put uneven pressure on different parts of the horse's foot. Always warm up and cool down when schooling and use a routine to which your horse responds positively. Be sure to school your horse equally in both directions during training in an arena or when lunging. If the horse resists taking a lead, make note of it. Consider having a massage therapist work on the horse to see if there is a muscular cause for the resistance. Learn simple suppling exercises that you can use on the forelegs and neck before working or showing. Remember that the deep flexor tendon runs down the back of the leg and attaches to the coffin bone after passing beneath the flexor surface of the navicular bone.

The most important thing to realize when your horse exhibits any type of lameness for any reason is that your horse really is in pain. Insisting on lunging the horse to "see if he works out of it" can be harmful to the horse if, for instance, the veterinarian has not had a chance to examine the horse and isolate the pain source. Always examine the feet closely; you don't want to call the veterinarian for a recurrent navicular-type lameness only to find out that the horse has a nail in its foot.

Only lunge a lame horse when and if the practice has been recommended by your veterinarian and if you recognize the symptoms and are sure that you know how long it should take before the horse "warms up" and goes sound. Remove all tack or harness paraphernalia before lunging a horse you suspect is lame.

Take pictures of your horse's general stance, with close-ups of the feet. Mark all photographs with dates. Keep track of major changes in weather, training, and feed, and what date you changed saddles or went to a double bridle. A simple barn diary--even shorthand on a big calendar--does not take much time and might help you identify the nature of problems, such as a horse which is stiff and sore the day after being trailered long distances. You can avoid panic and learn a lot about your horse (and yourself) by leafing back through a barn diary.

Just as you learn to look for signs of lameness, look for signs of optimum effort or accomplishment in your horse, and make notes. On what surface does your horse work best? Does your horse need a day or two off after shoeing? Does your horse run and buck during turnout? Has your horse's collection frame improved or diminished in recent months?

Stand back and watch your horse when he's sound. Think about what you are doing right, and keep doing it!

About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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