Fortunately, having your horse diagnosed with navicular is no longer a death sentence. There is no need for nerve blocking or special metal shoes that may help for a little while. Learn how going barefoot is used to rehabilitate navicular horses successfully all over the world.
By Helle Maigaard Erhardsen
Until recently, most unidentified heel pain/caudal foot pain was diagnosed as navicular syndrome. If x-rays would show damage to the navicular bone, this would be diagnosed as navicular disease. Both diagnoses are likely to be devastating news to any horse owner, as thousands of horses have been either put down or spelled out for the rest of their days, due to severe lameness thought to be incurable.
Only this is not the case anymore. Across the world, veterinarians and professional hoof rehabilitators are slowly starting to acknowledge the potentials of recovering horses from navicular by going barefoot. Getting rid of the metal shoes and allowing the horse to move correctly and regain his balance has proven effective on horses with navicular syndrome as well as navicular disease.
This has become possible due to treating the cause of the heel pain rather than attempting to treat the symptoms, which has traditionally been common practice. In the following, we will explore some of the research supporting a transition to barefoot as an aid in recovering from navicular and discover how navicular horses are being rehabilitated in real life.
What are Navicular Disease and Navicular Syndrome in horses?
Traditionally, navicular disease has been diagnosed when x-rays have shown remodelling of the navicular bone in one or both of the horse’s front feet. Symptoms of navicular in horses include:
- Chronic, progressive lameness
- Short or shuffling gaits often with toe-first landing
- Sensitivity to pressure on the central third of the frog
- Relief from pain when a nerve block is applied to the palmer digital nerve
- Frequent shifting of body weight when resting
- Resting the affected foot on the toe as if the horse was pointing
Though many horses tend to have the same symptoms but not show any changes to the navicular bone when x-rayed, whereas these horses would be diagnosed with navicular syndrome. This basically meant that the horse was sore in the caudal foot/heel and veterinarians were not sure what caused it.
Illustration: Susan Kauffmann
In navicular disease, it was believed that the remodelling of the navicular bone was causing the symptoms, and it was – and still is – common to advise shoeing with ring shaped shoes, to lift the sore heel and frog off the ground to relieve the pressure. This has only proven effective in some horses and only for a limited time before the symptoms reappeared.
Although already in 1974 with the publication of The Lame Horse, Dr James R. Rooney of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists proved that it was not the mysterious remodelling of the navicular bone that caused the symptoms. It was in fact the other way around. But it has taken years before Dr Rooney’s groundbreaking studies were recognised and his findings were followed up with additional research.
Why going Barefoot is Effective for Navicular Horses
The renowned veterinarian and PhD Robert M. Bowker, who is also head of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is doing comprehensive research in the structures of natural hooves. Both Dr Rooney and Dr Bowker have found that changes to the navicular bone, that lead to navicular disease, is the result of long term toe-first landing.
As such, the toe-first landing is not only a symptom of heel pain but can be the cause of the heel pain itself. If the horse isn’t conditioned to land on his heels and thereby stimulate the frog and heel, the entire hoof structure will weaken and cause stress to the soft tissue, deep flexor tendon and ligaments further up the leg. Read more about the importance of heel-first landing in our series of articles here.
When it became custom to perform MRI scans of navicular horses and not only x-rays it was evident that most horses in fact did suffer from tendon or ligament damages. This can be caused by long term toe-first landing due to weak and under stimulated frogs and heels, but also by the horse being overworked and other strain and exertion injuries.
When the horse is wearing metal shoes, the frog and heel is lifted off the ground and prevents these from being stimulated to become strong and healthy. As such, shoeing can be the cause of navicular. This is the reason why shoes are removed from the horse immediately, if you take your navicular horse to be rehabilitated at Rockley Farm in Exmoor England, run by Nic Barker and Andy Willis.
How going Barefoot can Help your Navicular Horse
Since 2005 Nic Barker has rehabilitated hundreds of horses at her farm in England. She, among many other professional hoof rehabilitators, have solidly proven that going barefoot is the most effective way to recover a navicular horse. At Rockley Farm, Nic has an impressive 83% success rate of recovering horses from deep digital flexor tendon lameness and collateral ligament and navicular bone injuries.
This means that 83% of the horses she has rehabilitated have gone back to the same performance level or higher. The remaining 17% of the horses have gone home sound but not performing on the same level as before. According to Nic Barker, the only horses that are less likely to make a full recovery are the ones who have been worked continuously on painkillers to endure their lameness.
Nic’s main focus is allowing the horse to recover from the tendon and/or ligament damages by regaining the strength to move correctly and in balance. This starts by removing his shoes if he’s shod, and providing the right surface to stimulate the frog and encourage heel-first landings. The idea is to rebuild a strong, balanced hoof, which will then support correct movement of the entire leg and shoulder.
Horses are only accepted at Rockley in agreement with the owner’s veterinarian. The horse usually stays at Rockley for eight weeks but already shows progress at the four week check-up with the owner and veterinarian. The horses go on a forage based diet with premium vitamins and minerals to encourage hoof health from the first day, and they are worked in and kept on different stimulating surfaces as the hooves are improving.
Hoof Boots can help Navicular Horses Recover
“I had reservations about taking his shoes off, and the vet was very sceptical,
but now I know it was the best decision ever for Connor.” - Marie Bak
At Scoot Boots we have also received numerous testimonials from horse owners, who are cheering over the fact that their navicular horses have recovered by going barefoot using Scoot Boots as an extra protection of the hooves in the process.
Here is a quote from Marie Bak, who had tried everything from nerve-blocking, steroid injections to remedial shoeing before going barefoot and finally recovering her show-pony Connor. He had been suffering from navicular and a tear to the deep digital flexor tendon:
“Who knows where he would be now if I hadn’t taken his shoes off. It really is inspiring to see what a difference taking shoes off a horse can make. To see him happily working again is priceless and I will never look back – barefoot all the way!”
The advantage of using hoof boots from Scoot Boots when transitioning your horse from shod to barefoot is that these boots allow the hooves to move naturally and encourages heel-first landings, which is crucial in order for your horse to recover from navicular. The shock-absorbing material of Scoot Boots protects your horse’s sore feet whilst still allowing the frogs and heels to be stimulated. As such, hoof boots are essential to relieve the pain from navicular in your horse on his way to recovery.
About the author
Helle Maigaard Erhardsen is an investigative journalist specialising in environmental issues. Her devotion to the outdoors includes a life long passion for horses of which she has two: Pannigan, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and Audrey, a Shetland pony, who are both bitless and barefoot. Helle is born in Denmark, where she graduated from the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2015. Her work is characterised by comprehensive research and she was nominated for the special media award Bording Prisen for her investigative reporting with the newspaper Ing.dk. She later obtained a Master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Communication from UTAS, when she relocated to Tasmania.