Should I Buy A Horse With Navicular: What You Need To Know First

January 13, 2023
Should I buy a horse with navicular

Deciding to purchase a horse is a significant commitment, and it’s essential to consider all factors before making a decision. For prospective buyers, one crucial question that may arise is whether or not to buy a horse with navicular syndrome. The word “navicular” can bring despair to most horse owners, particularly if their horse is used for work or competition. The big question is, should I buy a horse with navicular syndrome or not? You may even feel like it’s the end of the road for you and your horse. But what if you find a horse you like that has been diagnosed with navicular syndrome? Should you buy it, or should you avoid it altogether?

You should only consider buying a horse with navicular if you can afford its increased veterinarian and farrier costs and care needs. Another consideration is that you will not be able to work the horse as hard and it might need to be retired earlier than expected.

If you are thinking of buying a horse with navicular syndrome, you will have to consider its proposed function and how you will treat it and manage its pain. The navicular syndrome can mean one of many things, and treatment can range from corrective shoeing to surgery. If you are still in two minds, this article will give you more insight into what to expect.

Should I Buy A Horse With Navicular Syndrome Or Not?

The answer to this question isn’t clear-cut, as it depends on your intended purposes for the horse and how much money you’re prepared to spend on its treatment. It would be best if you only bought a horse with navicular syndrome once you know the following:

  • You have the means to treat it and intend on working it sparingly.
  • Treatment isn’t clear-cut and can amount to thousands of dollars in veterinarian bills.
  • The horse will need to be retired comparatively earlier than horses without navicular.
  • You’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons and consider the horse’s welfare before your gain.

Alternatively, if you have a heart for rescue horses and the means to effectively treat one with navicular, you can buy it and let it retire early.

There are many other factors to consider, so let’s look at them in more detail before you make a decision.

group of running horses

What Is Navicular Syndrome In Horses?

Navicular syndrome is an all-encompassing term referring to the damage, inflammation, or deterioration of the navicular bone and surrounding tissues. A more accurate term for the navicular syndrome is podotrochlosis because the other podothrochlear apparatus are often affected as well. However, sometimes navicular is referred to as “caudal heel pain.”

The bones, joints (e.g., the coffin joint), and soft tissue in this area of the horse’s foot will all be affected to some degree by a problem in the region. Navicular bones are found in the lower part of a horse’s legs. Each navicular is situated between the pedal bone and deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT), just above the hoof.

When any of these parts of a horse’s foot is affected by mechanical damage, tendon tears, necrosis, infection, or chronic inflammation, it falls under the navicular syndrome umbrella. Despite the bones being present in all four limbs of a horse, the navicular syndrome is more prevalent in the front legs. There are very few cases of navicular syndrome occurring in the hind legs.

Navicular syndrome is not reversible but can be managed to a degree. Careful management and care can postpone or minimize what would otherwise be disabling or significant lameness.

Indicators Of Navicular Syndrome

When a horse develops navicular, its foot’s structure will change with time. Structural indicators that a horse might have navicular include the following:

  • A “broken back” hoof pastern axis (HPA),
  • Excessively long toes, and
  • Under-run heels.

A horse’s initial signs of the navicular syndrome could include low-grade bilateral lameness or head-bobbing during trotting. Horses with navicular also tend to place their toes down first to alleviate pressure in their heels. The symptoms may come and go but are usually accentuated by some exercises or hard surfaces.

Additionally, the navicular doesn’t necessarily develop symmetrically. This means it might be more pronounced on one foot. Other factors that predispose a horse to navicular are its maturity, history, type of work, injuries, and genetics. For instance, larger horses between 4 and 15 years are more likely to be diagnosed with navicular syndrome.

Is Navicular Syndrome In Horses Genetic?

Navicular syndrome is more commonly associated with certain horse breeds, including Quarter horses, Thoroughbreds, and Warmbloods. The fact that it is unknown amongst other equine breeds, like ponies, Arabians, and donkeys, strengthens the assumption that genetics play a role in a horse’s predisposition to the navicular.

man hunting on a horse

However, some theories suggest that the weight of these larger horses places more strain on the lower limbs, resulting in a form of damage or degeneration.

What Else Causes Navicular Disease?

While there isn’t a specific cause of the navicular syndrome, there are primary factors that contribute to its development. Apart from some horses’ predisposition to navicular, the other factors that can trigger or cause it to develop could be an injury or the horse’s conformation. For example, the navicular bone might be damaged because of trauma or limited blood supply to the bone.

One theory suggests that navicular is caused by a high weight-to-foot ratio. This could explain why bigger horses such as warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and quarter horses are prone to developing navicular.

Perhaps the most common cause for the navicular is mechanical stress between the navicular bone, the navicular bursa, and the DDFT. Mechanical stress can be from highly physical disciplines, including racing, jumping, extreme working, or working on hard surfaces. The constant pressure and stress from unnatural movement on the podotrochlear apparatus cause their degeneration.

How Is Navicular Syndrome Diagnosed?

Instead of labeling general lameness as navicular syndrome, veterinarians believe making a more specific diagnosis can help with specific treatment and pain management.

Apart from observing the potential indicators, a vet can diagnose navicular syndrome – or podotrochlosis – in various ways. These include the following:

  • Nerve blocks. A nerve block is when a local anesthetic is injected at the nerve site at the back of a horse’s foot. If the anesthetic numbs the sore nerves, the lameness improves. A nerve block in the coffin joint can have the same effect if the horse has a navicular.
  • Radiograph footage. Radiographs aren’t consistent in showing navicular disease.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). MRI has recently become a more effective means of identifying navicular, especially the affected soft tissues.

MRIs are the most effective way of diagnosing navicular syndrome but are not foolproof. However, they can indicate how navicular syndrome can present itself in many forms.

Is Navicular Syndrome In Horses Curable?

Navicular syndrome is a degenerative disease. This means that it is not curable but manageable and preventable.

If you’ve bought a horse – or want to buy a horse – with navicular, you will need to prepare yourself for the additional vet and farrier bills to keep your horse pain-free and mildly workable.

Treatment Of A Horse With Navicular

Treating a horse with navicular needs to be specific to the horse’s needs. Its history, use, injuries, conformation, and compliance of the owner must be considered when deciding on the best method of treatment.

Since navicular syndrome can cause a horse a lot of pain, maintenance, and treatment should include pain management. For short-term pain management, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory Phenylbutazone can be used. Equinox can be used longer for inflammation, and a bisphosphonate such as Osphos can help with bone regeneration.

Long-term maintenance and treatment include the proper shoeing of a horse with navicular. Farriers can design shoes that correct how a horse’s hooves land on the ground – in a balanced and level manner. Specialized shoes like egg bar shoes and shoes with shock-absorbent pads or wedges will elevate the horse’s heel, removing pressure on the navicular area.

Steroid injections into the coffin joint or navicular bursa can improve the soundness of a horse, but there are risks involved. For instance, injecting the navicular bursa could result in the rupturing of the DDFT. If a horse has had either of these steroid injections, it must do no forced work for three days at least.

An invasive but permanent choice is a palmar digital neurectomy. While it relieves all the pain and extends the horse’s usefulness, a few complications can result. Examples of these unwanted complications include the following:

  • Distal limb injury as a result of a neurectomy,
  • Neuroma formation which can be painful, and
  • Rupture of the deep digital flexor tendon.

It’s important to note that one type of treatment might not suit a horse, and it may be a process of finding the best regime. Each horse’s injuries and needs are unique, so treatment can’t be generalized among horses with navicular.

Can You Ride Your Horse If It Has Navicular Syndrome?

You can still ride your horse if it has navicular syndrome – but only if you give it the treatment it needs. You will need to accept that your horse won’t be as competitive as it used to be.

Its regime should be less strenuous, and the treatment should be monitored for efficacy. Additionally, you should ensure the horse’s shoes are correct for the type of riding, for example, barrel or Western pleasure.

How To Exercise A Horse With Navicular Disease

A horse with the navicular syndrome should not be worked intensely. You can maintain your fitness with swimming and long-distance work done at a slow pace. Jumping should be less frequent. Horses with navicular should not be worked at high speeds, on hard surfaces, up steep hills, or in places with deep footing.

Irregular terrain can help to strengthen caudal hoof structures, but only at a slow pace.


Before buying a horse with navicular syndrome, you should know that it will likely cost you a lot of money in treatment. Additionally, you will not be able to work it as hard as it used to work, and it will need to be retired earlier than horses without navicular. You can still ride a horse with navicular syndrome, but with much more care and a holistic treatment approach.



I'm Bo, the owner of Smarter Horse. Helping horses be smarter by educating their people.  To find out more about me, click here

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