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How to Identify and Manage Navicular

How to Identify and Manage Navicular Dressage

The word “navicular” is not something that any horse owner wants to hear. But if you compete in dressage classes where the correctness and regularity of the paces are crucial, the news that your horse may have a condition that affects those areas is devastating.

However, with early diagnosis and treatment, it is possible to manage navicular and keep your horse in work.

In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about how to identify and manage navicular disease.

What is navicular disease?

Navicular disease is a degenerative condition that affects the navicular bone in the horse’s foot.

The navicular bone is located behind the deep digital flexor tendon, bursa, and coffin bone in the horse’s foot. Navicular disease affects the horse’s front feet, typically both.

Although it’s usually referred to as navicular disease, the condition is actually a collection of abnormalities within the foot, specifically related to changes in the structure of the navicular bone itself that are usually identified by MRI scanning.

How can you identify navicular disease?

So, navicular usually affects both of the horse’s front feet. One foot is often more severely affected than the other, which is why the horse often appears lame on just one front leg.

If you lunge the horse, he may be lame on his inside leg on both reins. Watch the horse closely to see if the toe of the hoof hits the ground first, rather than the heel.

Unlike some soft tissue conditions, navicular usually gets worse with hard work and eases off with rest.

Although these signs don’t necessarily add up to a definite diagnosis of navicular disease, they can give you a heads-up. But as with any undiagnosed lameness, you should ask your vet to investigate the problem, sooner rather than later.

How does the vet diagnose navicular disease?

The vet will carry out flexion tests on the horse’s front legs, and nerve-block the foot to see if that relieves or reduces the lameness.

To be sure of a definitive diagnosis, X-rays or MRI scans will be taken of the caudal heel area of each foot.

The vet will be looking for the degeneration of the surface of the navicular bone, lesions within the navicular bone, and calcification or mineralization of the ligaments that are attached to the navicular bone.

What causes navicular disease?

Navicular disease is not fussy about which horses it affects, and the condition can occur in any breed of horse.

However, certain breeds are more often affected than others. Thoroughbreds, warmbloods, and quarter horses are all commonly affected by navicular disease.

The condition develops in the horse between the ages of 7 and 14.

The horse’s foot conformation can predispose the individual to navicular disease, specifically:

  • Sheared heels
  • Underrun heels
  • Contracted heels
  • Disproportionally small feet
  • Mismatched hoof angles

For example, if you have a ten-year-old warmblood with one or more of the above conformational quirks, the likelihood of his contracting navicular is quite high. So, if the horse becomes “footy” in front, you should ask your vet to take a look at the horse as a matter of urgency.

How is navicular disease treated?

The treatment for navicular disease depends on the cause of the condition in the individual horse, and sometimes, several different treatments are used in a multi-pronged attack.

Unfortunately, navicular disease is a chronic condition, so it’s unlikely that your horse will recover completely.

However, there are ways of managing the disease so that the horse can remain sound and in work. Here are some options to consider.

Foot conformation and remedial shoeing

As foot conformation is a factor in navicular disease, remedial or therapeutic shoeing may help.

Shoes are crucial to address imbalances and abnormalities, and they also provide protection for your horse’s feet.

One technique is to use shoes that raise and support the heels. Another is to protect the soles of the feet with silicone material or pads. That will relieve the impact on the navicular bone when the hoof hits the ground. The pads work by cushioning the horse’s soles, easing the discomfort caused by navicular, and helping to keep the horse sound.

Your farrier and vet will advise you on what’s best for your horse.

Drug therapy

Drug therapy can also be helpful, typically in the form of anti-inflammatories such as Bute (phenylbutazone.)

However, Bute is regarded as a rather old-school drug, and many vets now prescribe Firocoxib instead. Firocoxib is also an NSAID, but it’s more selective than phenylbutazone and doesn’t generally cause the unpleasant side-effects that Bute often does.

Most horses do well on a combination of remedial farriery and medication.

However, you should know that some pain-killing, steroids, and anti-inflammatory drugs are not permitted under dressage rules. So, you will need to check with the relevant dressage regulatory body for your country to see what’s allowed and what’s not before registering and competing your horse in affiliated competitions.


Navicular gets worse with hard work, so you may need to reduce and change your horse’s daily work regimen.

For example, remove jumping from your horse’s schedule, avoid lunging him, and shorten your schooling sessions.

Surgical intervention

Sometimes, surgery can be used as a last resort to treat navicular disease.

A surgical procedure known as “de-nerving” can be carried out. De-nerving involves severing the palmar digital nerves in the horse’s foot so that he loses all the sensation in his heel. However, this procedure can be risky and could only mask the root problem, ultimately causing more complications further down the road.

Managing navicular disease

Even if your horse is diagnosed with navicular, he can still maintain an active life if you take note of the following tips:

1- Ride on soft footing

Avoid riding your horse on hard surfaces. That causes concussion to the structures within the horse’s feet. So, roadwork should be restricted to walking only, and if possible, avoiding the camber of the road surface.

Reducing uneven forces on the hoof and lessening concussion can help to reduce the inflammation in and around the navicular bone itself, decreasing lameness.

That said, exercise on soft footing is important, and it forms a key component of your horse’s daily routine. In the same way that regular exercise for a person with arthritis can help to relieve stiffness, horses with navicular disease will deteriorate more quickly if they lead a sedentary life.

2- Avoid working the horse on a circle

Don’t ride your horse around tight circles.

So, turn your horse out on a paddock or pasture every day so that he doesn’t spend too much time standing in his stable. If the horse is sound enough to be ridden, limit exercise to soft footing only.

Avoid riding lots of circles and lungeing. When the horse moves around a circle, the torque on the lower extremities of the feet on the inside of the circle increases. That can cause uneven forces on the soft tissues inside the feet, exacerbating lameness. So, always warm-up your horse on straight lines, rather than circles.

3 – Weight control

If your horse is carrying too much weight, that can increase the concussive forces on his feet.

Focus on keeping your horse at the correct weight for his breed and build. That could mean reducing the horse’s hard-feed ration and replacing it with forage that has a lower calorific value. Ask your vet or a qualified equine nutritionist for more advice on the correct feeding regimen for your horse.

In conclusion

Navicular disease doesn’t necessarily mean an end to your horse’s dressage career.

Keep the horse’s weight under control, focus on high-quality shoeing, turn the horse out daily, exercise the horse only on soft footing, avoid riding too many circles, and seek veterinary advice on a possible drug therapy program.

Does your dressage horse have navicular disease? Tell us how you manage your horse’s condition in the comments box below.

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