Navicular — how can I manage it and what is the prognosis?

Rick Farr B.Sc (Hons), B.V.Sc, MRCVS of Farr & Pursey Equine Veterinary Services gives his expert advice on navicular disease

Q: I have no experience of navicular. Are there ways you can manage it, such as remedial shoeing or maybe taking their shoes off? What is the recovery time, or does it ever get better and how can it be treated??

A: Quite often, mentioning the term ‘navicular’ to owners used to result in glum, solemn looks of despair as people thought it was the end of the line for their horse. However, a managed navicular case can still result in your horse maintaining an active life.

There are two important facts to realise about navicular:

  1. Navicular is a syndrome, rather than a disease — in essence this means there are many different symptoms of the condition, all often resulting in lameness. Furthermore, as with many syndromes, there can also be multiple causes.
  2. Navicular is a degenerative condition, meaning your horse will have the condition for life and it needs to be managed.

With these two points in mind, it is easier to understand the management and treatment of navicular syndrome.

In a nutshell, navicular syndrome involves changes in the bone so that, over time, it becomes inflamed and less dense. This results in changes in bone deposition within and around the bone and consequently affects the soft tissues around it, most notably the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) and the navicular bursa (joint capsule around the bone itself).

I am a great believer that knowing what you are dealing with results in a more effective treatment and management program. The most effective way to look at the navicular bone and therefore give you the best indicator of the progression of the condition is via Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). An MRI will give you the most accurate image of the current state of the navicular bone and hence the most realistic prognosis. However, I am incredibly aware that, for many people, an MRI is not possible but, even without this, there are many ways you can manage the condition.

One of the most important ways to manage navicular is through farriery. Whenever your horse is shod the farrier will assess the horse’s foot balance; this is essential in a navicular case. Ensuring the foot lands evenly and adequate support is given to both the centre and back aspect of the foot is a priority.

But what can you and your vet do to improve the longevity of your horse with navicular?

Continued below…

Related articles:

As an owner, when riding you should aim to avoid hard, concussive surfaces, surfaces with a camber and tight circles. This will reduce the concussion and uneven forces on the foot, lessening the amount of inflammation in and around the navicular bone itself, resulting in less lameness.

Your vet can help by placing medication around the navicular bone. Quite often the use of steroids in this area can help to reduce inflammation and the severity of lameness. The additional medications your vet may offer range from painkillers, which also have anti-inflammatory effects, to drugs called bisphosphonates, which regulate bone metabolism. All these drugs are more effective when used in conjunction with remedial farriery and the exercise changes mentioned above. If none of these is successful, there is a surgical alternative for managing navicular syndrome; this, however, should be considered as a last resort treatment and case selection is very important.

As with many conditions, there is never a quick fix. Navicular syndrome can be managed when owners, farriers and vets work together.