Complete Horse Health Guide

Understanding Navicular in Horses: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

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Table of Contents

What is Navicular in Horses

Navicular disease, also known as navicular syndrome or simply navicular, is a common and serious condition that affects the feet of horses. It is characterized by inflammation and degeneration of the navicular bone, a small bone located in the hoof region. Navicular disease primarily affects the front limbs, typically hindering the horse’s ability to bear weight and causing lameness.

The cause of navicular is multifactorial and not fully understood. It is believed to result from a combination of genetic predisposition, conformational abnormalities, repetitive trauma, and poor hoof biomechanics. Certain horse breeds, such as Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods, are more prone to developing navicular disease than others. Additionally, factors like improper shoeing, excessive workload, and poor footing can exacerbate the condition.

The symptoms of navicular can vary, but the most common sign is lameness that worsens over time. Horses with navicular disease often display a characteristic “heel-first” gait, placing more weight on their toes. They may show reluctance or resistance to turn, as well as difficulty on uneven or hard ground. In some cases, navicular can also cause heel pain, resulting in the horse avoiding weight-bearing on the affected limb altogether.

To diagnose navicular disease, a thorough veterinary examination is necessary. This typically includes a comprehensive history, a physical examination, and diagnostic imaging techniques such as radiographs, ultrasound, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These imaging modalities can help identify abnormalities in the navicular bone and surrounding structures, aiding accurate diagnosis.

Although navicular disease is a chronic condition that cannot be completely cured, there are management strategies to alleviate pain and slow its progression. Treatments may include therapeutic shoeing, hoof supplements, anti-inflammatory medications, and controlled exercise routines. In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary if conservative treatments fail to provide relief.

The prognosis for horses with navicular disease depends on various factors, such as the severity of the condition, the horse’s age, and the type of intervention used. While some horses can successfully manage the disease and remain sound with the appropriate management protocols, others may require a career change or retirement. Thus, early detection, proper veterinary care, and diligent management play key roles in maximizing the horse’s quality of life.

Signs of Navicular in Horses

Recognizing the signs of navicular disease in horses is crucial for early detection and appropriate management. As a horse owner or caretaker, it is important to be observant and vigilant about any changes in their behavior or movement. Navicular disease is often a progressive condition, so catching it early can significantly improve the horse’s outcome and comfort.

When assessing your horse for potential signs of navicular disease, pay attention to their gait and behavior. Lameness is a common symptom, usually more pronounced on hard or uneven surfaces. The horse may have difficulty making tight turns, exhibit a shortened stride, or show reluctance to move forward. You might also notice changes in their stance, such as standing with their weight shifted to the hind limbs or seeking relief by standing with one foot rested.

Other signs to look out for include:

  • Heat or swelling in the heel region
  • Increased sensitivity to hoof testers applied to the heel
  • Tendency to walk toe-first or landing on the toe
  • Hesitation while jumping or refusing jumps
  • Unwillingness to work or loss of performance
  • Changes in behavior, such as increased irritability or resistance during grooming or handling

Keep in mind that these signs alone may not confirm navicular disease, as they can overlap with other limb and hoof conditions. Therefore, it is vital to consult with your equine veterinarian for a proper diagnosis. They can perform a thorough examination, including diagnostic imaging, to evaluate the navicular bone and surrounding structures. Early intervention can help slow the progression of the disease and improve the horse’s overall comfort and well-being.

If your horse displays any of the mentioned signs, it is important not to delay seeking veterinary attention. Timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment can make a significant difference in managing navicular disease effectively. Remember to maintain regular hoof care and adhere to a well-rounded management plan customized to your horse’s needs. By being proactive and attentive, you can provide the best possible care and support for your horse throughout their journey with navicular disease.

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Causes of Navicular in Horses

The development of navicular disease in horses is thought to be influenced by several factors, although the exact causes are not fully understood. It is believed that a combination of genetic predisposition, conformational abnormalities, repetitive trauma, and poor hoof biomechanics contribute to the onset of navicular disease. Understanding these underlying causes is essential for implementing effective prevention and management strategies.

Genetics play a role in the development of navicular disease, as certain horse breeds are more predisposed to the condition. Breeds such as Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods are known to have a higher incidence of navicular disease compared to others. This suggests a genetic component that may influence the structure and function of the navicular bone and associated tissues.

Conformational abnormalities can also contribute to the development of navicular disease. Horses with certain foot and limb conformational faults, such as a small foot size, upright pasterns, or long-toe, low-heel hoof imbalance, are more susceptible to the condition. These conformational traits can alter the forces acting on the foot, leading to increased stress and strain on the navicular bone.

Repetitive trauma is another significant factor in the progression of navicular disease. Activities that involve continuous impact on the feet, such as jumping, racing, or excessive work on hard surfaces, can put excessive strain on the navicular bone and surrounding structures. Over time, this repetitive trauma can lead to inflammation, degeneration, and the development of navicular disease.

Poor hoof biomechanics can also contribute to the onset of navicular disease. Inadequate trimming or shoeing practices can disrupt the normal balance and alignment of the foot. This can result in abnormal forces being exerted on the structures within the hoof, including the navicular bone.

Some of the key causes associated with navicular disease are:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Conformational abnormalities
  • Repetitive trauma to the feet
  • Poor hoof biomechanics
  • Excessive workload on hard surfaces
  • Improper trimming or shoeing practices

Understanding and addressing these causes are essential for preventing and managing navicular disease in horses. By implementing proper hoof care, appropriate training regimens, and considering the horse’s conformation, owners and veterinarians can work together to reduce the risk and manage the condition effectively. Early detection and intervention are critical for optimizing the horse’s well-being and minimizing the impact of navicular disease on their soundness and performance.

Diagnosis of Navicular in Horses

Accurate diagnosis of navicular disease in horses requires a comprehensive veterinary examination and the use of various diagnostic techniques. A thorough evaluation helps to confirm the presence of the condition and rule out other potential causes of lameness. Prompt diagnosis is crucial in order to initiate appropriate management strategies and provide the horse with the necessary care.

The diagnostic process typically begins with a detailed history and physical examination. Your equine veterinarian will discuss the horse’s clinical signs, their exercise routine, and any recent changes in behavior or lameness. This information helps establish a baseline and guides further diagnostic steps.

Diagnostic imaging techniques play a crucial role in the diagnosis of navicular disease. Radiographs (X-rays) are commonly used and can reveal abnormalities of the navicular bone, such as sclerosis (hardening), cyst-like lesions, or irregularities in shape. The X-rays are usually taken from different angles to obtain a comprehensive evaluation.

In addition to X-rays, ultrasound can be used to further assess the soft tissues around the navicular bone, such as the deep digital flexor tendon and the navicular bursa. Ultrasound imaging provides valuable information about the presence of inflammation, tendon degeneration, and any fluid accumulation in the bursa.

More advanced imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can provide detailed cross-sectional images of the navicular bone and surrounding structures. MRI is particularly useful in cases where X-rays and ultrasound have not provided a definitive diagnosis. It allows for a more comprehensive evaluation of the navicular region, aiding in accurate diagnosis and treatment planning.

To summarize, the diagnostic process for navicular disease may involve the following:

  • Detailed history and physical examination
  • Radiographs (X-rays) from different angles
  • Ultrasonography to evaluate soft tissues and the navicular bursa
  • Advanced imaging techniques such as MRI for a comprehensive assessment

It is vital to consult with an experienced equine veterinarian who has the necessary expertise and access to appropriate diagnostic tools. By conducting a thorough evaluation, the veterinarian can confirm the diagnosis of navicular disease and develop a tailored treatment plan. Early diagnosis allows for the implementation of proactive management strategies aimed at minimizing the impact of the disease on the horse’s comfort and overall well-being.

Treatment for Navicular in Horses

The treatment of navicular disease in horses aims to alleviate pain, manage inflammation, and slow the progression of the condition. While there is no cure for navicular disease, a combination of interventions can help reduce lameness and improve the horse’s comfort and mobility. Treatment approaches vary depending on the severity of the disease, the individual horse’s needs, and their intended use.

One crucial aspect of managing navicular disease is appropriate farriery or corrective shoeing. Therapeutic shoeing methods focus on improving foot balance, optimizing hoof mechanics, and relieving pressure on the affected structures. Special shoes, such as egg-bar shoes, heart-bar shoes, or wedge shoes, may be used to support the heels and provide better shock absorption.

Medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can be prescribed to help manage pain and reduce inflammation associated with navicular disease. NSAIDs like phenylbutazone or flunixin meglumine may be used under veterinary supervision to provide short-term relief and improve the horse’s comfort.

In some cases, intra-articular injections of corticosteroids or hyaluronic acid may be recommended to reduce inflammation and provide temporary pain relief. These injections are typically targeted at the navicular bursa or the affected joint, and their usage should be determined in consultation with your veterinarian.

Regulating the horse’s exercise routine is critical in managing navicular disease. Controlled exercise helps maintain overall fitness and promotes healthy blood flow through the affected structures. Moderate exercise on surfaces with good footing, such as a well-maintained arena or soft ground, is generally recommended. However, activities that place excessive strain and impact on the feet, such as jumping or galloping on hard surfaces, may need to be limited or avoided.

Additional treatment options for navicular disease may include:

  • Oral joint supplements or medications to support joint health and lubrication.
  • Alternative therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic, or physical therapy to provide holistic support.
  • Nutritional adjustments and weight management to maintain optimal body condition and minimize excessive stress on the feet.
  • Stem cell therapy or platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, for potential regenerative effects, although further research is needed to establish their effectiveness.

Every horse with navicular disease is unique, and treatment plans should be tailored to their individual needs and response. Regular follow-up assessments with your equine veterinarian are essential to assess progress, make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan, and ensure the horse’s ongoing comfort and quality of life. With diligent management, many horses with navicular disease can continue to lead active and fulfilling lives, though their specific athletic capabilities may vary.

Prevention of Navicular in Horses

Preventing navicular disease in horses involves a combination of proactive measures that focus on promoting overall hoof health, maintaining proper foot biomechanics, and minimizing excessive strain on the navicular bone and associated structures. By implementing preventive strategies, horse owners and caretakers can help reduce the risk of developing this challenging condition.

Regular and proper hoof care is fundamental in preventing navicular disease. This includes routine trimming and balanced shoeing by a skilled farrier. Maintaining appropriate foot balance, proper hoof angles, and adequate heel support can help distribute forces evenly and reduce excessive stress on the navicular bone.

Provide regular veterinary care and have your horse’s feet evaluated by an equine veterinarian at least once a year. Regular examinations allow for early detection of any signs of abnormalities, lameness, or changes in gait that may indicate the onset of navicular disease. Timely intervention can help manage the disease before it progresses.

Avoid excessive work on hard or uneven surfaces, as continuous impact and strain can contribute to the development of navicular disease. Whenever possible, provide your horse with a well-maintained arena or suitable footing for exercise to minimize stress on the feet.

Maintaining proper weight and nutrition is crucial in preventing navicular disease. Excessive weight or obesity can increase the strain on the horse’s limbs, including the feet. Monitor the horse’s body condition and consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to develop an appropriate diet plan to maintain a healthy weight.

Attention should be given to the genetics and conformation of the horse when selecting breeding stock. Breeds with a higher incidence of navicular disease, such as Thoroughbreds or Warmbloods, should be carefully evaluated for any signs of the condition before breeding decisions are made.

Regular exercise is important for promoting blood circulation and maintaining overall fitness in horses. However, it is essential to balance the workload and provide adequate rest periods to prevent overexertion and minimize the risk of stress-related injuries.

Some preventive measures to consider include:

  • Regular and balanced hoof trimming and shoeing
  • Routine veterinary examinations and diagnostic imaging
  • Adequate footing and avoiding excessive strain on hard surfaces
  • Maintaining proper weight and nutritional balance
  • Selective breeding based on conformation and genetic predisposition
  • Balanced exercise routines and sufficient rest periods

By implementing these preventive measures, horse owners can help reduce the risk of navicular disease and promote the long-term soundness and well-being of their equine partners. Early detection, regular care, and a holistic approach to hoof health are critical in preventing or managing this challenging condition. Consult with your equine veterinarian for specific recommendations tailored to your horse’s individual needs and circumstances.

Final thoughts on Navicular in Horses

Navicular disease is a significant condition that can severely impact a horse’s soundness and performance. Understanding its causes, recognizing the signs, and implementing appropriate management strategies are crucial for providing the best care possible. By working closely with your equine veterinarian, you can ensure the early detection, accurate diagnosis, and effective treatment of navicular disease in your horse.

Remember, preventive measures play a vital role in reducing the risk of navicular disease. Regular hoof care, balanced shoeing, and attentive nutrition are essential components of maintaining optimal hoof health and minimizing excessive strain. Providing appropriate exercise routines and avoiding excessive impact on hard surfaces are also important factors to consider.

While navicular disease is a challenging condition, advancements in diagnostics and treatment strategies have significantly improved outcomes for affected horses. The combination of therapeutic shoeing, medication, controlled exercise, and alternative therapies can help manage the disease and maintain the horse’s comfort and well-being.

This article is just a part of The Complete Horse Guide, a comprehensive resource dedicated to providing information on various aspects related to equine health and care. We urge you to explore other sections within the guide to expand your knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of horse care.

Whether you are a seasoned horse owner or just starting your journey in the equine world, staying informed and up-to-date on current practices is essential. By taking proactive measures, implementing preventive strategies, and seeking professional guidance, you can ensure your horse’s overall health, happiness, and longevity.

Always remember that every horse is unique, and the severity and progression of navicular disease can vary. Consulting with your equine veterinarian is crucial for tailoring a management plan specific to your horse’s needs. With the right approach and attentive care, many horses with navicular disease can continue to lead fulfilling lives.

We hope that this article has provided valuable insights into navicular disease and its management. The Complete Horse Guide is here to support you on your horse care journey, offering comprehensive information on a wide range of topics. Take the time to explore and discover the wealth of knowledge available in the guide. By becoming well-informed, you can provide the best care possible for your equine companion.

Remember, the well-being of our horses is a shared mission, and The Complete Horse Guide is here to accompany you every step of the way. Happy horse-keeping!


Kasdan Hall

Kasdan is a third-generation horse lover, trainer, and all around expert. With a rich family legacy in the equestrian world, Kasdan's passion for horses was ingrained from an early age. His father and grandfather were renowned in the cutting horse industry, winning the prestigious NCHA futurity multiple times. With a profound commitment to the well-being and excellence of horses, Kasdan continues to carry on his family's tradition, sharing his knowledge and skills to foster strong bonds between riders and their equine companions.
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