Managing Navicular Disease and Navicular Syndrome

I am about to lease a 15 year old quarter horse who was diagnosed with navicular a year and a half ago. This great horse was a real ranch hand and then came to the East Coast to be the horse of a whipper-in for a hunt club. So he was probably jumped and ridden pretty regularly. I am light riding now, just trails, which is all I want to do with this horse. He is barefoot and has nice feet, overweight but now getting regular exercise. What can I do to keep his navicular manageable, as it is now? Any suggestions on supplements or what I should and should not do with this horse? He is not lame and has not been in years but I want to ride him for a long time so can you give me some advice on how to proceed? He is the greatest horse and I know he has many more good trail rides in him, and loves to be ridden. DB, Maryland

I have an older horse, late 20’s, that has had navicular for many years. Corrective shoes helped for a long time but now he is too bad, so he has no shoes on at all. He has been retired for a few years now but he is always lame. I know nothing will make him better, but there must be something out there to make him feel better and maybe help some of his pain. Can you recommend something? VG, Virginia

Dear DB and VG,

Few words are as devastating to a horse owner as the word “navicular.” Because this syndrome of painful front feet is one of the most common causes for a horse to be retired from competition–and eventually retired from riding altogether–accurate diagnosis and treatment are critical. Unfortunately, without sophisticated (and expensive) imaging such as MRI, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which structure in the foot is causing the horse pain and therefore develop an effective treatment plan.

It is generally accepted that navicular disease refers to progressive degeneration of the actual navicular bone, confirmed by X-rays. Navicular syndrome, on the other hand, describes any condition causing pain in the area of the navicular bone, or, heel of the hoof. This includes structures such as the navicular bursa, deep digital flexor tendon, coffin joint or any of several ligaments which are better seen with MRI.

Research is ongoing as to the cause of navicular, but one theory says that degeneration of the bone and surrounding tissues is due in part to reduced blood flow. This is why one of the first steps in treatment is often administering isoxsuprine, a prescription medication that dilates blood vessels. Other agents that dilate blood vessels—such as nitric oxide, arginine and citrulline–are currently being explored and show great promise.

Some horses benefit from the prescription medications for joints Legend® and Adequan,® as well as joint supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and hyaluronic acid. Anti-inflammatories such as bute (phenylbutazone), Equioxx® and Surpass® are frequently prescribed to help manage the chronic pain associated with navicular. However, long-term use of these medications may lead to other problems, such as ulcers. Therefore many horse owners reach for natural anti-inflammatories such as MSM, omega-3 fatty acids, cetyl myristoleate and certain herbs to help lessen the discomfort. In all cases, the horse may benefit from corrective trimming and/or shoeing, as well as changes to his turnout and exercise regimen.

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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