Hope for Navicular Horses?
If you google ‘navicular’, you’ll come up with hundreds of different articles–many contradicting one another– about this supposedly incurable equine condition. It’s very easy for a person to become confused about what ‘navicular’ really means and whether or not there may be hope for their horse. I’ve been there before.
I dealt with ‘navicular’ for the first time with the mare I rode as a teenager. Her name was Dee. We kept Dee shod nearly year-round, and she always had narrow, oval-shaped hooves and contracted heels from what I remember. She was diagnosed with navicular in her late teens and we were told we would not be able to ride her again. So we gave up essentially, and retired her.
Then about ten years ago, I had another horse–Sunny– whose behavior suddenly changed. Instead of being the willing, easy-going horse that he’d been before, he became sullen and arena-sour (he was a barrel horse). I knew he was hurting somewhere, but I didn’t know where. So the search for the culprit began.
Again, he was diagnosed (by one vet, anyways) as having ‘navicular’ pain. He, too, had small feet and contracted heels and we kept him shod most of the year. Even though he was only about seven or eight at the time, I had to retire him from barrel racing. I didn’t want to sell him so I leased him out to a friend for pleasure riding.
At that time, I was still in the camp that believes ‘we’ve bred the good feet off our horses–the same camp that believes that shoes are often a necessary evil. Navicular seemed to be a dead-end road (and it’s a death sentence for many horses. . .)
I’m so thankful that I no longer hold those views though. I’m thankful that I’ve learned there is a better way, and that seemingly incurable problems like ‘navicular’ can be treated. And though I haven’t witnessed this yet personally, I’ve read enough barefoot trimming case studies and research to know it to be true. I have no doubts.
So let’s back up for a moment and I’ll explain what the navicular bone is and why it seems to cause so many problems for horses.
A small, flattened bone sitting directly behind the coffin joint (where the second and third phalanx meet), the navicular bone is attached to the coffin bone (third phalanx) by the impar ligament and to the pastern joint by the suspensory ligaments. The deep digital flexor tendon runs over the lower surface of the navicular bone, and between it and the bone is a small pocket of fluid known as the navicular bursa. Directly underneath the navicular bone is the digital cushion.
So you can see there are quite a few structures which are all interrelated here.
When a horse displays lameness in both front feet (especially when lunged in a circle or moving over hard ground), shows pain in the back of the hoof, and/or has radiographic changes to the navicular bone, he is often diagnosed with ‘navicular’ disease (or syndrome, as some call it). Many texts say that the pain originates from navicular bone remodeling.
A well-known researcher, Dr. James Rooney, has proven through his post-mortem research that a continual toe-first landing actually causes navicular bone remodeling and not the other way around, as many people, including professionals, tend to believe. His research has been forgotten or ignored to an extent though (perhaps because it doesn’t align with more popular beliefs?)
So why would a horse land toe first? Because there is heel pain. Think about that for a moment. That means that the heel pain is already present before any navicular bone remodeling has begun. That pain could be occurring for several different reasons–including thrush or underdeveloped digital cushions.
If the horse continues to land toe-first for any length of time, the attachment of the impar ligament to the navicular bone becomes stressed and can tear. According to acclaimed barefoot trimmer and researcher, Pete Ramey, 80% of the blood supply to the navicular bone travels through the impar ligament. He believes that damage to this ligament is bound to cause changes to the navicular bone itself in time.
One problem with many of our horses is that they don’t get enough barefoot movement on rough terrain (especially important at a young age) in order to develop and toughen the digital cushion. And then many of them are shod by age two or three. Their digital cushion–the nerve center of the foot–never has a chance to fully develop and protect the back of the foot. I believe we’re setting many of these young horses up for certain lameness with these practices.
Pete Ramey says we have two choices when a horse is displaying ‘navicular’ type pain. We can either mask the problem (for a while) with ‘corrective’ shoeing like egg bars and/or pads, or we can try to correct the real problem by “bringing the frogs and digital cushions back into work.” The heels must be lowered (albeit slowly in most cases) so frog pressure can occur.
Boots and pads may be necessary in order to make this transition. Pete says to experiment with different pads to see how you can add pressure to the frog area.
In Pete’s article, Digging for the Truth about Navicular Syndrome, he says this:
“When navicular bone changes are treated as a symptom of simple loss of function and sensitivity at the back of the foot, restoring soundness is usually an easy task. I have personally seen many horses with confirmed navicular changes that have endured years of pain while the owners footed the bill for orthopedic shoeing, only to watch them become completely sound within days of a correct trim and a chance to go barefoot. Sometimes it is a longer process of course, but I have yet to experience failure on one single navicular case.”
So if you happen to be dealing with a horse with heel pain or who has been diagnosed with ‘navicular’, my advice would be to find the most experienced barefoot trimmer you can find and focus on getting that heel-first landing. I believe there is hope for navicular horses!