Navicular Syndrome

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Also Known As

Navicular bone inflammation or displacement


The navicular bone is a small bone in the foot of the horse that is held in place by ligaments. Because of the complexity of the interacting structures of the foot, a number of problems can arise if any damage or pathology occurs to disrupt the functions within the foot. Since the forelimbs bear between 60 to 65% of a horse's weight, the inner workings of the front hoofs are very important to the soundness of the horse.

Navicular syndrome occurs when inflammation or degeneration of the navicular bone and its surrounding tissues and ligaments prevents the smooth interaction necessary for the horse's hoof to move properly as it stands, walks, trots, or gallops. This syndrome usually appears as a chronic foreleg lameness that can occur in horses of all ages. Quarterhorses, thoroughbreds, and warmblood breeds seem most susceptible.


  • Heel pain
  • "Tiptoe" gait
  • Lameness


Two theories, one of predisposition, and the other, a genetics theory, are the subject of ongoing debate among veterinarians. Studies show that the smaller the foot on a large horse, the more apt the horse is to develop navicular syndrome.

The activity of the horse is also seen as a factor. Activities, such as barrel racing, that put stress on the horse's foot may lead to navicular syndrome.

Genetic predisposition that relates to the conformation of the foot and the natural angle of the pastern may also be a factor. The more upright the pastern is, the more likely the horse is to develop navicular syndrome.


Keeping a horse's feet in proper neurological and bio-mechanical balance is the best prevention. Trimming the hooves regularly and carefully, and exposing the horse to stimulus to improve hoof form is vital.

Proper shoeing by a farrier who is experienced in designing shoes that provide support for the heels and counteract tendencies such as rolled toe problems can be helpful. Horses with upright feet may need their heels lowered and a shoe that will allow their heels to spread.

Regular exercise that maintains fitness is preferable to rough workouts on rugged terrain and hard surfaces. If a horse has any predisposition to navicular syndrome, controlling the frequency of jumps is also important.


The prognosis for a horse with navicular syndrome is guarded. By the time the problem is recognized, degeneration of the tissues, ligaments, and bone structure may be well-advanced. Management of the condition involves alleviating pain and slowing progress of the degeneration.

The services of a veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis, the extent of the degeneration, and the needs of the horse will help inform the best course of treatment in each case.

Anti-inflammatory drugs used to treat the pain include corticosteroids, NSAIDS, and other joint medications. Anticoagulants to improve blood flow are often used along with vasodilators to improve the flood flow into the vessels of the hoof. .

Proper trimming of the hooves and shoeing are important in long-term management of navicular syndrome. An experienced farrier can select or design shoes that will improve the neurological and mechanical balance of the foot depending on the conformation of the horse's hooves.

In some cases, surgery may be recommended after all other options have been considered. The palmar digital nerves may be severed so the horse loses sensation in the back of the foot. Because of possible complications, including infection, continuation of the lameness, and the loss of the horse's ability to feel pain if injured, most veterinarians are reluctant to take this approach.

Another procedure, navicular suspensory desmotomy, during which the ligaments supporting the navicular bone are severed, is successful about 50% of the time.

Usually, a horse diagnosed with navicular syndrome will need a careful evaluation and development of the best exercise program possible to relieve pain and slow the progress of the condition.

Swimming and slow, long-distance work are often recommended, along with a reduction of work on irregular, hard surfaces or terrain, and either a reduction in frequency of jumping or eliminating jumping altogether in order to prevent further injuries.

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EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.