A Guide to Navicular Disease in Horse - Symptoms, Prevention, Q&A

Table of Contents

Keeping your horse happy and healthy is about much more than just feeding and caring for them.

When you understand the type of disease your horse is prone to, it can help you prevent illness or disability in the long run.

Navicular disease in horses is a perfect example. 

This can lead to significant disability or lameness without proper treatment. In the worst cases, horses may even have to be put down due to debilitating pain and the sheer inability to walk.

Navicular disease causes lameness, and 2.5% of all lame horses end up having to be put down for mobility issues.

With navicular disease, however, prevention is half the battle. 

The right kind of nutrition, hoof care, and exercise can stave off navicular disease in your horse and keep them feeling at its best for a long time.

In this article we will cover:

  • What is a navicular disease in horses
  • Navicular horse symptoms
  • What horse navicular disease could be caused by
  • How to prevent navicular disease
  • Treatment options for navicular syndrome

Whether you are looking to maintain leisure horse vitality or sports horse performance, preventing and treating navicular disease is effective knowledge in helping them extend their quality of life and improve health in the long run.

What is Navicular Disease in Horses?

What is Navicular Disease in Horses?

Navicular disease occurs in the navicular bone in horse bodies, which is a small bone that joins together the hoof bones with strong ligaments.

Interestingly, navicular disease can also occur in humans, as we have navicular bones in our feet too!

It’s especially debilitating for horses since the navicular bone serves as a fulcrum for several other ligaments and bones.

When issues arise in that particular bone, the horse may experience severe lameness.

Navicular disease in horse bodies refers to inflammation or other types of degeneration in the horse navicular bone which may lead to disability or lameness.

While this usually affects the front hoof, it can cause issues with the back hoof’s mobility as well. It is a degenerative disease, which means it is generally not curable but can still receive treatment to lessen the symptoms.

Navicular Bone in Horse Hooves

As pictured in this diagram, the navicular bone of a horse is the smallest of three bones in a horse’s hoof.

Source

What Are the Symptoms of Navicular Disease in Horses?

How can you recognize navicular horse symptoms?

Here are a few major signs that your horse may be suffering from navicular disease.

  • Short, choppy strides
  • Occasional lameness when walking in certain conditions (e.g. difficult terrain, walking in small circles, etc.)
  • One foot always landing in front of the other
  • Shifting weight to one foot consistently
  • Attempting to keep weight off the back heels by walking on toes

Navicular disease is often characterized by lameness.

Lameness is defined by a change in a horse’s gait, usually in response to some type of pain. 

In itself, lameness is a huge issue, with 50% of U.S. horse owners claiming to have dealt with a lame horse at some point.

It’s important to note that lameness is not the same as navicular disease. Although lameness can be a symptom of navicular disease, it can also signify different issues such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Physical immaturity
  • Fibrotic myopathy
  • Neuromuscular disorders
  • Orthopedic disease
  • Fatigue
  • Inflammation or infection

With this in mind, you’ll have to be careful when it comes to diagnosing your horse. Different afflictions require different treatment.

Although proper levels of exercise and good care are always good solutions, you’ll need to dive deeper to find out the right way to deal with an ill horse.

Ultimately, navicular symptoms are only part of the picture. 

Sometimes a navicular horse may not show symptoms at all, especially in the early stages of its disease. If you want to figure out whether or not you have a navicular horse on your hands, you’ll need to opt for diagnostic imaging to see any issues afflicting the navicular bone.

When analyzing a horse’s condition from the outside or with an x-ray, you can see abnormal bone growth or cavities, but won’t be able to recognize any soft tissue problems.

An ultrasound or MRI is the best solution for recognizing more deep-seated issues with your horse’s feet.

So with that in mind, what can navicular disease lead to in horses?

  • Significant lameness. Needless to say, inflammation in the navicular bone can cause a horse’s gait to become irregular, creating an inconsistent walk that may lead to long-term cumulative damage.
  • Reduction of performance or work levels. A navicular horse may no longer be able to work or perform at the same level it used to due to the staggering gait.
  • Chronic pain. The irritation in the navicular bone will usually lead to chronic pain in your horse, which may cause them to walk more irregularly and might even require them to be euthanized.
  • Inability to walk or run. In the worst-case scenario, the horse may no longer be able to walk, run, or even stand up due to constant pain in one or more limbs. This of course means it can no longer move about freely and experiences a full loss of mobility, which usually means it must be euthanized as well.

No horse owner wants to see their horse have to deal with such debilitating issues.

The best option is to understand what causes navicular syndrome and stay on the lookout for these issues in your horses if you know that they might be prone to contracting this disease.

So what are some common factors you should be keeping an eye out for?

What Causes Navicular Disease in Horses?

There is no singular known cause that leads directly to navicular disease, which can make it tough to identify required lifestyle changes.

With this said, there are a few major known factors that contribute to the likelihood of your horse experiencing issues with its navicular bone.

If you know your horse has one or more of these, you should ramp up preventative measures to protect against navicular syndrome:

Poor Hoof Shape

poor hoof shape

Long toes paired with low heels, small feet, narrow or upright feet can all lead to inflammation of the navicular bone. Ligament strains and injury due to tightness in the hooves may cause improper walking positions, which can further cause damage to the navicular bone.

Overextending Joints

Strenuous activity such as heavy galloping, repeatedly running up steep hills, walking regularly on irregular ground, and jumping too often can lead to a horse’s joints being overextended and getting damaged.

If you live in a location with dry, hard soil, make sure to protect your horse’s joints when they are walking and running outside.

High Weight to Size Ratio

Whether your horse is genetically disposed to a heavier build or gains weight over time, you’ll need to pay special attention to their feet due to the heavier strain their body puts on them.

Old Age

The older a horse is, the more likely it is to develop navicular disease.

In fact, navicular disease is most commonly diagnosed in mature horses from the age of four to fifteen years old. This is due to the improper positioning a horse develops as it grows older and experiences loss of muscle definition and sure footing.

Providing nourishment is a remedy for the nutrition loss that comes with old age. 

However, the disease is not exclusively limited to older horses, as younger horses can develop navicular issues too.

To review the causes of navicular disease in a horse and how it may lead to long-term health problems, take a look at this chart below:

Cause Issue 
Poor hoof shape Sustained pressure on the navicular bone, leading to inflammation
Overextending joints Exerting joints too hard leads to bone damage
High weight to size ratio Heavier strain on the feet thanks to weight leading to deterioration over time
Age Degeneration of bone and tissues due to old age

Some of these factors are genetically induced, while others are due to behaviour. 

Either way, if your horse is on the heavier side, naturally disposed to poor hoof shape, has been exercising a lot, or is older, you should be more diligent in checking on their foot shape for any recent changes.

Treating navicular disease as soon as possible is essential, even more so for horses that are used in riding and other equestrian sports.

One slip in a horse’s gait due to navicular disease and the rider might end up suffering a debilitating injury, which could be catastrophic for everyone involved.

Equestrian sports is one of the highest risks for brain injuries among all sports in the United States, with 21% of injured riders requiring hospitalization or surgery.

That’s why it’s crucial for horses to receive the proper care for their hooves so that both the horse and rider avoid any accident for as long as possible.

In this next section, we’ll cover methods for preventing navicular disease in horses.

How to Prevent Navicular Disease in Horse

How to Prevent Navicular Disease in Horse

Navicular disease may sound quite risky, especially due to the potential dangers to the horse’s health and wellbeing.

Navicular disease in horses refers to inflammation or other types of degeneration in the horse navicular bone which may lead to disability or lameness. Reducing inflammation and preventing deterioration can minimize the impact of navicular disease. There are a few preventative measures you can take to reduce the chance of contracting navicular disease in the first place such as using supplements like TRI-ACTA to reduce inflammation and support the joint structures around the navicular bone along with other prevention options.

Proper Hoof Care

Quality trimming and shoeing are crucial when it comes to preventing navicular disease in horses.

This can fix the balance in the heel, helping it maintain solid contact with the ground while the horse is walking. Decent footing and balance can go a long way in preventing issues with the navicular bone.

Regular Exercise

Working out regularly in good form on grounds that are even and won’t cause your horse to overexert itself will help their hooves stay healthy.

It also had the added benefit of keeping their weight within a relatively healthy range.

Activity is also great for keeping a horse from stagnating and becoming stressed out, and stress is another potential factor that might increase infection in the navicular bone.

Medication

Oftentimes, issues in the navicular bone arise due to a lack of sufficient blood flow into the area.

Giving your horse anticoagulants or vasodilators can improve blood flow into their hooves, reducing the potential for pinched nerves or pain.

Anti-inflammatory drugs are used to reduce pain during the treatment but have also been shown to reduce the lameness itself if accompanied by other changes to the hoof care by preventing further damage to the hoof.

Proper Nutrition

Without good nutrition, your horse won’t be able to maintain proper hoof formation.

Nutrition also helps the horse keep healthy body weight, especially if they are training or travelling. Equine supplements are a great option for preventing injury, improving performance, and promoting joint function.

Great exercise and care are preventative measures that can greatly reduce your horse’s chance of unhealthy hoof formation that leads to navicular disease.

Even if your horses are healthy at the moment, they won’t stay healthy unless you continue to provide them with proper nourishment and activity.

This is especially important for horses who are at a high level of activity.

In fact, 98% of professional caregivers reported adding to their horse’s diet with nutritional supplements to enhance performance and provide health benefits, a higher percentage than the non-professionals.

So what happens if your horse contracts navicular disease? 

Thankfully, there are options for treatment even if they are already exhibiting navicular horse symptoms.

What are Treatment Options for a Navicular Horse?

Before you start to consider medical intervention for your horse, keep in mind that each horse is different.

Just because a certain type of treatment will work for another horse doesn’t mean it will work for yours. The best course of action is to go and obtain a proper diagnosis and advice from a licensed horse doctor before adopting any of these treatments.

With this said, three of the most common treatment options for navicular syndrome are:

  1. Proper shoeing and trimming
  2. Prescription of anti-inflammatory drugs
  3. Use of bisphosphonates

Let’s explore each in a little more detail.

1. Proper Shoeing and Trimming

Proper Shoeing and Trimming

At the early stages of navicular disease in horses, fixing their footing may be enough to treat the onset issues with the navicular bone.

This can reduce tension and shock to the horse navicular, reducing navicular horse symptoms.

2. Prescription of Anti-Inflammatory Drugs

Reducing inflammation in soft tissue can help alleviate the navicular syndrome in horses suffering from it.

They are also effective for pain management if the pain arises from the soft tissue.

3. Use of Bisphosphonates

This is a drug that reduces bone remodelling and prevents pain from bone changes. If your horse is suffering from bone inflammation in particular, this is a highly effective treatment to try out.

While these treatments are usually effective, preventing the disease before it occurs is always better than having to treat it while it’s at its peak.

Navicular disease can lead to long-term disability and lameness if discovered too late, so you want to be very vigilant in inspecting your horse’s hooves even if they are not showing obvious symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the early signs of navicular disease in horses?

If your horse is beginning to develop navicular disease, it will typically begin to exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Lameness in one or both front limbs, especially after long periods of sustained activity
  • Unnatural weight shifting from one foot to another
  • Frequent stumbling due to pain
  • Inconsistent stride

These or any other abnormality with your horse’s stride may indicate a problem with the navicular bone.

How would a vet approach diagnose navicular disease in a horse?

There are a few main signs.

First, a vet would assess the outward signs mentioned above (e.g. limping, lameness, stumbling, etc.).

The next level of diagnosis would be something such as an x-ray, which would allow the vet to see whether or not there was an issue with the navicular bone.

If the x-ray doesn’t show any issue, an MRI or ultrasound might be more effective in locating a tissue-level navicular syndrome.

Either way, your vet should be thorough in diagnosing the problem. Just because a navicular bone issue doesn’t show up in an x-ray doesn’t mean your horse is healthy. Take a look at this chart to see what kind of imaging can detect different issues.

Diagnostic Imaging Issues Detected
X-Ray Bone trauma, tumours, foreign objects lodged inside of the body
MRI Tumours, cysts, internal bleeding, structural abnormalities, inflammation, infections, blood vessel issues, soft tissue problems
Ultrasound Infections, certain organ issues, cysts, tumours, reproductive system issues or abnormalities, cardiovascular issues

Does navicular disease mean your horse can no longer walk or run?

Recovery can be difficult, especially if you catch your horse in the later stages of the disease.

If you’re able to identify navicular diseases when your horse is younger, however, and treat them properly to remove the source of concern, it is still possible that your horse can maintain a comparable state of performance as it had before the diagnosis.

Oftentimes if a horse is diagnosed with navicular disease it will no longer be able to return to its former state of competitiveness and might have to retire from performance entirely.

For workhorses, proper management can ensure that they may continue to work as long as they reduce the strenuousness of their work.

Of course, investing in preventative measures is the best course of action here, as it can prevent a navicular horse altogether and save the trouble of treatment.

Navicular disease is a degenerative disease, which means most treatment remains focused on delaying the degeneration and reducing pain.

For more information, check out these frequently asked questions about navicular disease in horses to learn more.

Conclusion

horse health

At the end of the day, prevention is better than treatment and saves you time and money as a horse owner.

Proper nutrition is key to maintaining a horse’s health in the long run, so supplements are a great solution for any horse who needs an extra boost of nourishment due to exercise, lifestyle, or genetic issues.

If you’re interested in finding out more about supplementing your horse’s health, Integricare supplements may provide the right nutrition for your horses to prevent navicular disease and other joint problems in the long run.

With active ingredients and no fillers, their products are a great fit for any horse owner looking to optimize performance, maintain horse health, and reduce chronic pain.

No matter what method you choose, you will have to account for your horse’s health and prevent issues like navicular disease from arising in the first place.

Proper care, nutrition, and maintaining a healthy exercise level will do well in extending your horse’s lifespan, preventing health issues, and improving their performance.