Navicular Problems: Symptoms and Treatment

Lameness emanating from the caudal aspect of the horse’s foot can be caused by a variety of problems. Here’s a review of what the horse’s navicular bone is, what it does, problems that can occur, and potential treatments.

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So many times, a horse gets labeled as suffering from “navicular,” and people shy away from him as if he were Typhoid Mary, not knowing how to treat or even visualize the problem. In recent decades, however, much has been learned about the area where the navicular bone lies. And many “set in stone” diagnostics (such as “lollipops” in the bone seen on radiographs) have gone by the wayside. Veterinarians and horse owners now know that there are many problems that can affect that area of the horse’s anatomy; some can be helped, but not all of them can be fixed. It also is known that in certain breeds of horses, the problem can become worse with age. In this era of horses living longer, it behooves owners to recognize the early signs of navicular syndrome, and know the options for your horse.

The navicular bone is a small bone that sits deep within the hoof at the back junction of the coffin bone and the short pastern bone. The navicular bone has the physical shape of a small canoe, which led to the name “navicular” bone; the prefix “navicu” means “small boat” in Latin. The navicular bone is also known as the distal sesamoid bone (the commonly known sesamoid bones behind the fetlock joint are the proximal sesamoid bones).

Associated with the navicular bone are several soft tissue structures. On the upper (proximal) aspect of the bone is the collateral sesamoidean ligament, which attaches the navicular bone to the distal end of the short pastern bone (remember that a ligament attaches bone to bone and a tendon attaches muscle to bone). On the lower (distal) aspect of the bone are the impar ligaments, which attach the navicular bone to the coffin bone. Cushioning the navicular bone from the pressure of the DDFT is a thin, soft serous sac called the navicular bursa.

The navicular bone is similar in structure to most bones — there is a central marrow cavity, small channels (along the distal aspect of the bone) for blood vessels and nerves to enter, and a smooth surface on the back side (palmar or plantar) where the deep digital flexor tendon glides over the bone

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Written by:

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, New York. He was an FEI veterinarian and worked internationally with the United States Equestrian Team. He died in 2014.

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