Helping Your Horse With... Navicular

By Bob Sagely

This is how a horse with long toes and sheared heels will often stand. She is not an extreme case but to get herself over her heels she camps behind. Notice the pastern angle vs. the hoof angle (see the stripe in her hoof). Things are out of kilter.

"How can I tell if my horse is really suffering from this?"

Throughout my many years as a farrier and horseman I think I have heard from more people who say they have a "navicular horse" and need help than any other affliction. The sad thing to me is that I have come to believe over 75% of those horses merely suffered from very poorly performed farriery rather than from actual navicular disease. Few of these horses, even some who have had the drastic course of a neurectomy performed so they would be "pain-free", had actual damage to the navicular bone. As I have seen much success for horses diagnosed with this by simply trimming their feet properly, or in a very few cases putting on wedge pads or a rocker or rolled toe shoe (or combinations of the pad and therapeutic shoe) on their feet, it sure seems to me that too many folks are going to unnecessary expense and worry to alleviate their horse's lameness.

It is almost evidence enough to me that the diagnosis of navicular is a very vague deal, so vague that it is often labeled navicular syndrome, which encompasses a whole spectrum of various and sundry lamenesses of the front feet. This is often referenced as a "collection of maladies centering on lameness of the front feet, centering in the heel or caudal (rear or back half of the foot) areas of the foot". Any soreness that does not show clear cause in the way of a bruise or some form of laminitis or founder often becomes "navicular".

It has been my experience that the majority of horses who have been declared navicular actually are just tendon sore. And further it has been my observation that this soreness is due predominantly to improper trimming and/or owner neglect, too long between farrier visits. I am fully aware of the dearth of dedicated and really professionally qualified farriers and the myriad excuses some of them can come up with for missing and putting off appointments. If you have one like that, getting yourself another would be my advice. Nonetheless, if it has been too long between trimmings, that is a fault of the owner and the owner simply must take responsibility.

Here the mare stands with her leg straight down out of her shoulder. While she is now over her knee, her heels are plainly out from under the cannon bone, though luckily for this girl just barely so.

Now some soreness may be a result of overworking in a young horse and surprisingly I have run into many young horses actually diagnosed in this manner, even when the overwork issue is self-evident. Overwork of the older horse after a lay-off could also result in lamenesses that are indistinct in presenting clear evidence.  Soreness may result from sudden or traumatic stress or injury (possibly old and unnoticed) or from genetic/conformation problems. But, given all this, the major culprit I have found has been a chronically misaligned foot due to poor and ill-effected trimming of the hoof.

Recently there has been much made of the use of steel horseshoes as the culprit. My own feelings here are that foot preparation is the source of this difficulty, not the shoe in and of itself. Barefoot horses can show as much lameness in regard to these problems as the shod horse and removing the shoes alone does not effect a recovery.

A standard and popular treatment for navicular diagnosis has a focus on the use of egg-bar shoes and wedge pads. I suggest that the primary focus should be, and treatment should begin with, proper trimming of the foot. What I have found to be proper is actually also what I have found to be uncommon as a manner of trimming throughout five different states where I have lived here in the United States.

Thankfully the proper trim I advocate and use is once again being promoted by a number of folks who have gained a measure of notoriety for re-introducing what I have always considered sound practice. I am glad for that and only slightly bemused by their additional efforts to de-shoe all horses. Their claims that shoes are evil and shoeing as a practice is evil are counter-productive to providing the best foot care for an individual horse, care that meets the individual needs of that horse. But on the matter of what constitutes a proper trim I find much agreement with these folks.

This photo shows the effect of shearing in moving the heels forward and making a "longer" foot. The line across the buttresses of each heel cuts nearly through the middle of the frog. This does not support the horse, stretches the tendons and does not protect the frog. The arrow shows the toe beginning to crack and chip from the excess stress due to this condition.

A hoof to ground angle that brings the heels under the cannon bone for proper support of the leg column and toes of a length that allow easy break-over as the horse moves forward are called for no matter how a horse is built and no matter whether the horse is shod or running barefoot. The toe length, shorter than far too many farriers realize or understand, is essential to keeping the flexor tendons of the lower leg from stretching and/or tearing. "Bowed tendon" is the common term for sudden and traumatic injury of these tendons but they are very susceptible to stress and will induce lameness if the horse is wearing too long a toe. Often this lameness, easily relieved by proper trimming, displays no overt pathology and so gets the tag "navicular syndrome". This then results in a whole host of shoeing remedies that often lead to nowhere because the farrier does not address the real problem, poor foot trimming.

With regard to the application of egg-bar shoes, or any bar shoe for that matter, I have seldom found this to be a necessity and quite often to be superfluous to the actual remediation of the lameness. A proper trim and either wedge pads or a rolled or rocker toe shoe (sometimes pad and a shoe adjustment) have sufficed in all but the truly navicular horses I have seen. By truly I mean those that have clear damage to the navicular bone itself. Some will claim that the bar provides additional support but in the case of navicular I would ask support for or of what? As for protection of a sensitive heel area I will ask protection of what and from what. If indeed it is a sore tendon or even a truly sore navicular bone (NB), the bar provides no such protection to these structures. And the application of a bar shoe does not address the real problem that aggravates the tendons and the NB.


Additionally, I question why an egg-bar would ever be applied to any horse but especially to a horse already dealing with a lameness issue. A horse should land on both heels simultaneously, or nearly so, and this should be slightly ahead of the rest of the foot surface. This is similar to how we walk, in a rolling heel to toe motion. Though some folks seem to want a flat foot-fall that, in fact, leads to serious damage from excessive concussion and stress to connective tissues of the lower leg and foot.

The foot of the horse was not designed to land flat, in effect a slapping of the foot onto the ground. It was meant to roll, to land fairly square on the heels for stability and then to roll off the toe, either straight ahead or off one side of the toe or the other, as the terrain or conformation of the lower leg dictates. An egg-bar shoe will not allow for the heels to land and support the foot's need to roll forward. It seems to me that it allows the leg to experience a torque, or twisting force, from the rounded heel on which the horse now will land. Given that uneven ground will exacerbate this twisting I suggest here that an egg-bar will not help the lameness and may actually cause other and more serious damage and lameness. My years of shoeing have provided plenty of anecdotal evidence to that effect. A very large number of folks have told me that the expensive egg-bars did not help their supposedly navicular horse.

This shows how trimming the foot both at the toe and the heel restores a healthy, round front foot shape. The heels are moved back under the horse, not as much as ideal but much more than before. The moving back of the heels and proper toe length produce a foot that is of correct length which will breakover and support the horse with ease.

That an egg-bar does not too often cause excessive damage and is actually perceived to be a curative, I believe, can be attributed to the fact that there are a growing number of shoers who do indeed properly trim the foot when navicular syndrome is the concern and often combine the egg-bar shoe with wedge heels and a rolled or rocker toe. These, rather than the bar shoe, are what I find to be the most effective for a horse that exhibits lameness and pain that is diagnosed as navicular in nature. Also a horse that is being treated for such a diagnosis is usually not under much, if any, work load until signs of the lameness disappear. The unfortunate reality I have come to know is that a horse may seem to go sound and when work resumes, so does the lameness. And frequently this is compounded, or even wholly caused, by the fact that the expensive application of an unnecessary shoe (the egg-bar and probably the wedge padding, rolling or rocking of the toe) has been abandoned, due to its cost. Unfortunately, this often means the proper trimming he was receiving is abandoned too. In other words, all too often the real culprit (poor trimming) is not recognized or appreciated. The farrier and the bar shoe therapy are thought to have "cured" the horse and then the same old poor trimming and shoeing practices take back over. Lame horse again, frustrated owner, change of shoer and/or vet and the horse still suffers, sometimes even has his nerves cut through so the lameness issue will be "over and done with". It is not for the welfare of these poor horses; it is simply masked and ignored.

Frustrating, but it does not have to be... If more owners can become educated consumers of farrier services this will change. It is a conundrum but a fact as well - you need to know more than the shoer's phone number. And while knowing as much as the shoer does not necessarily mean you could really shoe, or even trim, a horse, and it surely does not guarantee that your horse will always be sound, it will help greatly to minimize problem occurrences due to farrier neglect or lack of skill. You will be able to recognize that.

Now the horse will easily stand straight out of her shoulder because the heels are more where they ought to be and the toe is of a proper length. The hoof fibers are in alignment (not perfect but close) with the pastern meaning the foot can now work as it should.

I have heard folks complain that this is what they hire the professional for; if they wanted to know that much they would be shoers themselves. That is fine to say but the fact remains that being a professional (making money for a skill or service) does not guarantee the shoer will have expertise nor possess integrity in their practice. To know the difference and to care for your horse as best as you can, which is your responsibility in the end, it is essential that you be able to recognize what a good trim job or shoe job looks like, to know what a professional farrier should be providing for your horse. This relationship has two directions - the farrier should be able to expect certain things from you and likewise you have a right to expect things from him. Understand well that for this you may pay more than you are paying now for shoeing as you become a demanding and knowledgeable consumer. But that is how this works in our world. As for the horse, well, he just hopes that the human takes care of the things that he cannot, as well as is humanly possible.





About the author:

Illustration by Kevin Peters

Illustration by Kevin Peters

Bob Sagely has both made a living and enjoyed a life with horses for over twenty-five years. He has worked as a cowboy, horse "trainer" and farrier and is fascinated by the sudden notoriety of the "natural horsemanship" movement. He was fortunate to have gotten his start from men who taught him things that made sense to him and worked with the nature of the horse rather than against it. As a person who has depended on horses to make a living he has come to understand how hard the horse will try for a human if the human can bring things to the horse that make sense to it. He is now sharing his understanding and mindset with others who are looking to build better relationships with their horses. "The horse is perfect and we just need to get good enough to deserve what they give us," is how he operates, while trying to get better himself all the time. You can email Bob at or visit his website to learn more about Sage Horsemanship and the learning opportunities he can provide for you and your friends, four-legged and otherwise.