Q: My 11-year-old gelding was recently diagnosed with navicular disease. The vet says it’s a fairly mild case but could get worse over time. What can I do to limit the progression of the disease and keep him as sound as possible?
SANTIAGO GUTIERREZ-NIBEYRO, DVM, Diplomate ACVS, ACVSMR
A: Navicular disease is an incurable degenerative condition that has similarities to osteoarthritis in people. Over time, the navicular bone and soft-tissue structures around it deteriorate, causing pain in the sole region of the foot. Horses suffering from navicular are often described as “walking on eggshells.”
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to slow the progression and reduce your horse’s discomfort. Most importantly, you must address the biomechanical abnormalities causing the disease. These are usually chronic foot imbalances resulting from abnormal limb conformation or improper trimming or shoeing. The classic conformation most commonly associated with navicular disease is hooves with long toes and low heels. However, we sometimes see horses prone to the disease who have the opposite conformation: short toes and high heels.
In either case, the best treatment is therapeutic, or corrective, shoeing. Every patient is different; there’s no one-size-fits-all method for addressing the disease. It’s important, therefore, to find a knowledgeable farrier familiar with corrective shoeing and trimming techniques who can identify what will work best for your horse’s specific problem. If you don’t know a qualified farrier, ask your veterinarian for recommendations.
Ideally, horses with navicular disease should never go barefoot. Shoes are not only helpful in addressing abnormalities and imbalances, they also provide protection for your horse’s sensitive feet. In fact, in addition to shoes, your farrier will probably suggest covering the soles with some sort of pad or silicone impression material to decrease the impact on the navicular bone when the foot lands on the ground. These pads or “pour-on pads” will act like human sneakers to cushion his sore soles.
For the same reason, it’s a good idea to exercise your horse on soft footing rather than a less-forgiving surface. The more you can reduce the concussion on his feet, the better. However, exercise should still be a key component of his daily routine. Just like people with osteoarthritis, horses with navicular disease who are sedentary grow stiff and their body functions deteriorate. Turn your horse out in a pasture or paddock all day every day, if possible, and limit his time in the stall.
If he’s still sound enough to ride, try to do so only on soft footing. Depending on the severity of his condition, you might also want to avoid riding him on circles or longeing. When horses travel on a circle, they torque the lower extremities of the feet that are on the inside of the circle. This can potentially cause uneven forces on the soft tissues inside the feet, making lameness worse. Warming your horse up on straightaways will be far better for him in the long run.
Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can safely and effectively help to manage your horse’s pain, so long as it’s a very low dose. Many veterinarians now prescribe a drug called firocoxib, which is a more selective NSAID than phenylbutazone and thus less likely to produce side effects. Ask your veterinarian what dosage is appropriate for your horse.
Finally, if your horse is overweight, I recommend getting the extra weight off to reduce the concussive forces on his feet. No dietary supplements or feeds have been scientifically proven to alleviate the symptoms of navicular disease. But if you focus on good-quality corrective shoeing, daily turnout, conscientious exercise and judicial use of NSAIDs, you should be able to maximize your horse’s soundness and comfort.
Dr. Santiago Gutierrez-Nibeyro grew up around horses on his family’s cattle ranch in Argentina. After graduating with honors and a veterinary degree from the National University of La Plata in 2001, he came to the U.S. for his internships before completing his surgical residency at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center. A diplomate of both the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, he is now a clinical associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to his busy surgery schedule, he conducts research on a wide range of topics, from lameness, gait analysis and foot injuries to innovative surgical techniques.
This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.