Navicular/Small Feet

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Q: My horse is a 6 year old Appaloosa Mare. She has small feet with steep walls. My vet is concerned about the steepness of her wall and her contracted heels. Her left forefoot has practically no frog left. My vet feels this can be corrected with shoeing. My farrier feels it is difficult to correct these things once a horse has matured. Both the vet and farrier are wondering about navicular. How can I tell? What should I do?

A: Diagnosis of navicular disease can be difficult. Since navicular usually rears its ugly head at about 7 years of age this puts your 6 year old horse in the risk category.

Generally in my practice if I suspect navicular disease, I begin by palpating the navicular area of the frog with hoof testers. It takes an experienced hand, but the horse's reaction to the testers will indicate the presence of pain in that area, or the lack of it.

You can look for a "navicular waist" which is a contraction halfway down the hoof wall, both medially and laterally, that develops in advanced cases. Viewed from the front, a hoof with a navicular waist appears to have an hourglass type shape.

Another test is placing the horse's foot on the end of an 8 foot long 2x4 board so that the heel is on the ground and the front half of the hoof is on the end of the 2x4. The opposite front foot is lifted and held while the 2x4 is grasped and raised off the ground from the end the horse is not standing on. The acute angle resulting from the raised 2x4 draws the deep flexor tendon tight against the navicular bone. If pain is present the horse will jerk the foot that is being held up and slam it to the ground (the person holding up the foot must be extra careful!). A positive reaction to this test is a good indication that pain is occurring in the navicular area. However, like all "navicular tests" it is not in itself conclusive. The horse could be suffering from a bruised tendon or tendon sheath in that area.

If the above tests are conducted by your farrier or by yourself and they prove to be positive, the horse should be referred to a veterinarian for a posterior nerve block and radiographs. Most testing done by veterinarians will either come up negative or abnormal. The vet and you will have to decide what conclusions you wish to draw. Oftentimes tests are non-conclusive. I highly recommend you get at least two opinions.

In my years of shoeing and dissecting hundreds of feet from horses put down for navicular, I have found that approximately 80% had bruised deep flexor tendons over the navicular, generally caused by low heel, long toe syndrome rather than actual navicular disease. With rest and proper shoeing these horses could have been saved and returned to active service.

As far as straight walls and contracted heels are concerned. We either have a congenital or a shoeing problem. If it is a shoeing problem the following suggestions may help.

Shoe on schedule. Shoe with adequate expansion. Pad and pack the feet with Forshner's Medicated Hoof Packing to restore moisture and apply a bar shoe with frog pressure and rocker toes. Frog pressure can be accomplished where little frog is left by using leather shims and/or hot glue built up to make contact with the frog when the foot is loaded.

Keep your horse shod short but not to the point of sole bruising, and nail to the front half of the foot only. Finally, thinning the quarters with a rasp from the 3rd nail hole back will sometimes aid in relieving the contraction.

If navicular is confirmed you will need to have the bar shoe be a wedged bar shoe, raising the heel about 2 degrees to take pressure from the deep flexor off the navicular bone. Also if navicular is confirmed, do not have frog pressure, and you will need to weld a piece of a horseshoer's rasp into the bottom of the shoe to protect the navicular area from being struck from below.

Be sure to give your equine practitioner and your farrier a copy of my suggestions. My thinking is that with very straight walls, no frog left and navicular suspected that the prognosis would be guarded.

There is one last thought that comes to mind and the word is Equilox. A farrier with the knowledge and skills working very closely with a knowledgeable veterinarian can sometimes apply Equilox, which is an acrylic imitation hoof wall material, to relieve the stresses of support and allow the lower (distal) half of the hoof wall to expand. See attached illustration. If the horse is diagnosed positive for navicular, the appropriate shoe would be a bar shoe with negative frog pressure.


Geronimo Bayard
The American Blacksmith                                          
Oakland, Oregon

One method of shoeing for contracted heels but not for navicular.

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This entire web site is copyright protected.  1996-2001 Geronimo & Mary Bayard,  2001-2008 Mary Fitzpatrick
All rights reserved. Contact Mary for reproduction information & permission.