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Navicular— A Dreaded Fear of the Horse Owner

Why does navicular disease occur? The key to this problem is circulation. Decreased blood flow to the foot results in the degeneration of the navicular bone. In examining a navicular horse, one would find the following:


• Incorrect skeletal structure — shifting more than normal body weight onto the front end resulting in interference with blood flow to the foot.


• Shoeing and trimming (foot care) — angles and balance of the feet are incorrect.

Suspensory System

• Injured tendons and ligaments in the front legs


There are four stages of navicular disease. It is true that some horses are more prone to navicular than others. Causes are as follows:

1. Heavy body size and weight in relationship to bone structure and foot size.

2. Horse’s skeletal correctness — conformation and/or displaced parts due to injury.

3. Poor shoeing or hoof care.

                (Numbers 2 and 3, I refer to as alignment)

4. Decreased circulation to the foot (injured deep flexor tendon).

As quoted by Dr. Greg Parks, of the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, Los Olivos,


"Alignment and structure correctness of the equine are essential for the navicular horse to go sound"

The deep flexor tendon becomes injured (tears in tendon are similar to runs in a nylon sock) as a result of too long of toe and no heel syndrome in the foot. This injury can be a result of a man-made situation or neglect of the horse owner.

As the horse travels, his breakover is slow and more pressure goes to the back of the foot. This puts excess strain on the deep flexor tendon. Over a period of time, this strain will cause the cushioning protecting the deep flexor tendon from wear against the navicular bone to be crushed. Without this cushion, the deep flexor tendon will wear against the navicular bone and become injured, resembling runs in a nylon sock. When there is enough irritation to the tendon, the tendon will swell. This swelling causes the circulation to the foot to be cut off. At this point the horse will go lame. A true navicular horse will travel sound for a short time, and then go very lame — appearing unsound in the entire front end. As time goes by, the navicular bone will form black spots and become very rough. These black spots are the deterioration of the navicular bone. The rougher the bone becomes, the sooner the deep flexor tendon becomes irritated, the sooner swelling occurs, and the sooner the horse will go lame.

We have been taking navicular horses, successfully stopping the degeneration process of the navicular bone, and putting these horses back into operation or performance. This procedure takes from thirty to ninety days depending on the severity of the horse’s structure and alignment faults, and suspensory system damage. The end product (no lameness) cannot occur until the structure is correct and aligned, and the suspensory system healed.

At this time the vascular system will return to normal and blood flow will be returned to the foot. We do not use medication internally so as to affect organs such as the liver, kidneys, or stomach. The horse owner does not have to give medications to their horse for the rest of its life. There is no need to discard the navicular horse, write him off, or put him in a dog food can. You can have your best friend back again to compete in shows, competitions, or just go for a Sunday ride in the mountains.

Case in Point

We took the following case in point to prove our program. In May 1999, Dr. Darrin

Kelly, our veterinarian from Redmond Veterinary Clinic, examined a sixteen-year-old

Quarter Horse named Whiskers. Following both a complete physical examination and

radiographs of the front feet, Whiskers was diagnosed as being Navicular Stage Three.

After moving to Oregon in 1996, Whiskers became part of a drill team that performed regularly, and traveled many miles for competitions and parades. As the years went by, he became more crabby and sour-eared, according to Michelle, Whisker’s owner. She had to ask harder to make Whiskers run. When Whiskers wasn’t a drill horse, he performed in local shows with Nicky, Michelle’s daughter, or he took part in cross- country trail competitions. On May 15, 1999, Whiskers competed in Crooked River’s game show, and entered the Dry Canyon trail competition the following day. There were eighty-nine entries and Whiskers won! However, just before the end, Whiskers showed soreness in the front end. The next day he was very lame after five minutes of warm up.

Michelle called to see if I could determine why Whiskers was sore. He was admitted to Rogers’ Hotel where he received a training examination, correction to the structure and alignment, and diagnosis of the injury to the suspensory system (pulled check ligaments). After the check ligaments were healed, Whiskers was still lame. I recommended that he be sent to Redmond Veterinary Clinic to be examined. Dr. Darrin Kelley was the attending veterinarian. Knowing the structure was correct and the suspensory system healed, there would be no confusion about where the soreness was coming from.

The following is a quote from Dr. Kelley’s letter:

"On May 27, 1999 I examined a horse named Whiskers owned by Michelle Flesch for lameness. The lameness was in the front limb and appeared following a few minutes of exercise. The horse was grade 1/5 lame in his right front on a straightaway on firm ground. Grade 2/5 lame when circled to the right on firm ground. Both lower and upper limb flexion tests were negative for the front limbs. Both hind limbs were very positive to upper limb flexion. There was visibly noticeable arthritis (bone spavin) of both hocks. Hoof testers revealed mild sensitivity over middle 1/3 of the frog of the right foot Palmar digital anesthesia of right front improved the lameness by approximately 95%, but then the horse became lame grade 2/5 in his left front when circled left. Palmar digital anesthesia of the left front foot resulted in a 95% improvement overall in the lameness. Radiographs were taken of both front feet and a diagnosis of navicular disease was made based on radiographic and clinical findings."

Michelle called me and wanted to know if I would take Whiskers into my program. The entire family wanted their best friend back. I said that I would, however, I did not want Whiskers on any medications. Dr. Kelley had advised that Whiskers be put on Isoxuprine HCL and Phenybutazone, and have correct shoeing done. Neither Isoxuprine nor Phenybutazone was given to Whiskers. My husband is an excellent farrier, and one who understands the importance of balancing the foot and making a correct alignment with the horse’s structure. He took Whiskers under his wing and did what was necessary to set up the front feet so I could start my treatment.

Whiskers was typical of all horses I’ve worked on. His skeletal structure had been incorrect, he had long toes and no heel, and his suspensory system had been injured. Knowing that all of the above no longer existed, we were able to proceed as follows:

1. Correct shoeing to create the foot degree necessary — correct shoe to allow proper break-over.

2. Thirty days of laser treatment to both front feet.

3. One full week (seven days) of being ponied without a rider for a one-hour session each day.

At the end of the seven days, Whiskers traveled with no lameness! It was time for him to go home. Michelle and Nicky were instructed to ride Whiskers, building up his under saddle time each day. In two weeks Whiskers, Michelle, and Nicky went to their first show since he was diagnosed as being navicular. Whiskers entered six classes — three for Michelle, and three for Nicky. He traveled with no lameness in all six classes. (Video is available of Whiskers at the Madras horse show.)

Whiskers was ridden on a regular basis until November 11, 1999, at which time he returned to Dr. Darrin Kelley from the Redmond Veterinary Clinic. There he was re-examined for soundness and x-rayed again. Dr. Kelley found no lameness after following the same procedure as on May 27, 1999. The radiographs were the same. Whiskers was still rated as #3 navicular. However, he was sound! Quoted from Dr. Kelley’s letter of findings written December 2, 1999:

"There was no front limb lameness. Hoof testers showed no sensitivity"


The degenerating process had been stopped, pain had been eliminated, and blood flow had been restored to the feet.


January 15, 2000: Whiskers, as reported by owner Michelle Flesch, is very sound and going strong. He is - Happy! Happy! Happy!

October 2006: Whiskers is STILL sound and going strong!!