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.


inner hoof structures labeled


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!






Digging for the Truth about Navicular Syndrome

Navicular Disease in Horses



Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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14 Responses

  1. vlc58724 says:

    Thank you so much for this post!! I, like so many other horse people, hear a word like navicular and go into panic mode!! I believe in natural everything, as much as I can. So I always ride my horses barefoot and they haven’t ever been shod. I have a wonderful trimmer and she takes very good care of my horses feet.

  2. Leigh Ann says:

    I am a first-time horse owner… I ended up with my big guy when a friend was having to get rid of him. I have always wanted a horse so I agreed to love him for the remainder of his life and about a month in, he’s diagnosed with navicular.

    Everyone from vets to farriers to horsemen have a different opinion on what causes it, how to treat it, what the heck it actually is and I don’t know which people’s opinions to cherish and which to toss out yet while I’m still learning absolutely everything equine ….

    This brings a lot of clarity – I don’t often respond to blog posts, but I sincerely thank you for sharing this. I almost broke into tears knowing I can make my big dude comfortable again and your theory really speaks to me. I feel that I have a game plan and I can’t wait to talk to my (very talented barefoot) farrier again, he comes out on Friday. Wish us luck!

    • then5925 says:

      Hi Leigh Ann–thank you so much for your comment. I know how confusing it can be when there are so many different opinions out there about navicular. And bravo to you for taking the time to research the condition for yourself and for being open to ideas may not be the most popular ones. I truly believe that proper natural barefoot care offers the most hope for not just navicular, but all kinds of hoof problems. I wish you the best of luck with your horse! By the way, if you haven’t already checked out Pete Ramey’s website (hoofrehab.com), it’s a great barefoot resource.

  3. Renae says:

    Thanks so much for the article! Worth the read! Do you have any suggestions for acupressure points to help ease navicular pain?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Renae,

      There are acupressure points that can help with navicular pain, but it would probably be too in depth for me to describe where they are in a comment. (Maybe a topic for a future post!) One that I can suggest is a Ting point called Pericardium 9 which is just between the heel bulbs of the front feet. Do you have the book ‘Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual’? It’s a great book for people who want to learn to do acupressure on their horses and there are points listed for several conditions, including navicular syndrome.

  4. Angela says:

    While a good article, doesn’t fix every navicular problem…. As a person who had never owned a shod horse in her life, sometimes things happen that you can’t control. My mare slowly developed navicular problems over her life, due to an old injury sustained as a baby that I was unaware of. This old injury caused pain in the joint when the heel was at a normal position, so she had to be shoed for heel support, with a 3′ wedge to rotate the toe down more. Unfortunately unlikely she can ever go barefoot again

    • Casie says:

      Hi Angela–while I agree that sometimes injuries can occur that are out of our control and make things more difficult, I personally would never apply a wedge to a horse’s hoof again. I’m speaking from personal experience–wedges only serve as a temporary crutch and cause damage in the long run. (crushed, under run heels for one.) Have you looked into boots at all?

  5. Hoyt Morrow says:

    YES! Thank you! I had a mare that was 25 when we got her. Almost immediately she was in so much pain that she would only lay down. We talked to the vet (we were all friends and he knew her) and he knew she had navicular. we did all the shoes/pads she was still barely able to walk. So, finally we found “The Barefoot Horse” wedsite. After arguing with our shoer, he read the information and RELUCTANTLY began to trim her. Well, she and I went on to ride miles and miles of trails. We rode gymkhana and placed 3rd for the year! I lost her in 2011 at the age of 36. Still sound. She dropped walking to eat breakfast. She is still the best horse I’ve ever had. And I Thank God for barefoot trimming!

  6. Joy says:

    I really like what you are saying. I have an extreme situation and would like your input. I have a 16-yr Paint mare I bought 2 years ago. They told me she was a barrel horse and riding her confirms this. Within weeks of taking off her shoes she was completely lame. Diagnosed navicular with radiographs. We couldn’t get any help for her with heel correction and ended up with neurectomies. She became sound and we continued to keep her barefoot. She is now lame again. The farrier cannot get her heels down because of the way her foot grows. Vets are coming out Friday for more radiographs. Farrier even suggested that he can build up heals inside boots. She is in pain. She is the best mare I’ve ever had. Any suggestions?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Joy. Sorry to hear about your horse. My suggestion would be to find a barefoot trimmer–not one who shoes and trims–a real barefoot trimmer. Traditional farriers tend to want to ‘build’ the heel up to solve problems when in actuality, the heel really may need to come down. I don’t know what your mare’s feet look like but I would suspect she has narrow, contracted heels? Am I correct? Thrush may also be an issue. Does she have a deep crevice in the center of the frog? This can be thrush and cause quite a bit of pain. (I have blog post on this too, if you do a search.) I wish you the best of luck!

  7. Susan says:

    Please keep me posted. Im thinking about pulling shoes off.

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