Horses exhibiting heel pain are often diagnosed with navicular syndrome. [1] It is a common – and frustrating – issue to deal with, but it no longer spells immediate retirement for the horse.

With early diagnosis and proper treatment, a horse with navicular syndrome may still have a useful life for a considerable period of time.

Navicular syndrome is a chronic degenerative condition that can cause lameness in the front legs. It is most commonly seen in competition horses and quarter horses.

It may be caused by repetitive mechanical stress on the navicular bone, resulting in degeneration of tissues and ligaments in the heel.

Horses with navicular syndrome may have a shortened stride length, exhibit signs of pain or experience changes in their gait such as toe landing.

Proper hoof care and maintaining a good body condition for senior horses can help to reduce the risk of this condition. Once it has been diagnosed, a number of treatment options are available.

Also known as caudal heel pain or podotrochlear syndrome, navicular syndrome was long referred to as navicular disease.

The latter term is no longer used since a syndrome (concerning a series of issues) is a more accurate term for the condition than disease.

Navicular syndrome often results in degeneration of the navicular bone, generally in the front feet. Navicular syndrome in the rear hooves is unusual but does occur.

This syndrome may not actually involve the navicular bone per se. Because it is a degenerative problem, it is not curable. Proper management of the condition can help to improve your horse’s comfort and mobility.

Besides the navicular bone, navicular syndrome may involve the:

  • Navicular bursa
  • Coffin bone
  • Impar ligament
  • Suspensory ligament
  • Deep digital flexor tendon
  • Digital cushion
  • Frog
  • Heel bulbs

The Navicular Bone

The small, flat navicular bone is located at the rear of the heel at the back of the coffin joint.

The navicular bone attaches to the pedal bone via the short impar ligament and to the pastern joint via the suspensory ligaments.

Navicular Bone in Horses | Mad Barn Canada

Over the navicular bone’s lower surface lies the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT). The DDFT then turns and goes up the leg. As the animal moves, the DDFT is under tension.

Heel pain can result from anything causing strain on the tendon or interfering with the tendon’s action. Under some circumstances, adhesions between the DDFT and the navicular bone may occur.

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Signs and Symptoms

Horses with navicular syndrome exhibit lameness, but it is of a specific type. Rarely, navicular syndrome lameness comes on suddenly. Usually, it is a gradual, intermittent lameness.

What starts as a horse being somewhat “off” progresses over time. The lameness may appear to switch legs.

Suspect navicular syndrome if the horse displays any of the following:

  • Pointing a toe while at rest
  • Development of short-strided gait
  • Difficulty when turning
  • Problems going downhill
  • Increased stumbling
  • Rigidity in the neck and poll
  • Gait changes when trotting circles
  • Becoming uncooperative with the farrier

Unlike laminitis, when a horse tries to keep weight off the toe, equines with navicular syndrome try to put their toes down first to avoid weight on their heels.

The horse may end up with a snubbed toe in conjunction with a tall heel derived from stepping toe first. Eventually, waves may appear on the hoof. The size of the heel may increase.

Navicular syndrome does not normally present with heat in the hoof, an increased digital pulse, or the swelling so frequently found in other hoof lameness. If such symptoms are involved, they are generally subtle.

Navicular Syndrome Causes

Exactly what causes navicular syndrome is uncertain. Hoof trauma plays a role in some cases, as can anything interfering with the blood supply to the navicular bone.