You’re Killing Your Horse!

Jared Lee Cartoon "Big-Boned"

“You’re killing your horse!” I exclaimed. The woman had just related how her geriatric Morgan was on constant grass pasture, with continuous access to hay, and now also being fed what she described as “just over twelve pounds of feed a day.” “But the vet told me I need to put weight on him!” she protested. Dora and I weren’t concerned about his weight at that particular moment; we were worried about what we were seeing in his feet: flat soles, very stretched white lines, sore to the point of being unwilling to lift his feet, and – most disturbing of all – soft, squishy sole tissue directly beneath the coffin bones. And if he continued on that course, we knew it would only be a short time before his coffin bones penetrated his soles…

EL - Front Feet

The feet of this big warmblood may appear fairly normal, but…

Four years ago, I wrote an article entitled How Much is Too Much? that described research done by one of my university colleagues on the question of how much weight a horse can carry without evidence of muscle damage. And while riders too heavy for their horses continue to be a serious problem (for their horses, certainly!), overweight horses such as Jared Lee’s “big-boned” cartoon horse and the very real horse described above are all-too-typical examples of what we now see on a near-daily basis.

EL - Body

…the body suggests all is not right! A quick glance at the bottoms of the feet…

“So what’s the big deal about a few extra pounds on my horse?” you may ask. Well, it’s because these “big-boned” horses have taken the first (or second or third) step on the path toward a condition known as endocrinopathic laminitis – an extremely common form of laminitis now recognized as distinctly different from the laminitis caused by the sudden excessive intake of carbohydrates that occurs, for example, when a horse gets into the feed room. So when we encounter an overweight horse accompanied by word that he was “a bit sensitive” after his last trim, we can pretty well predict what his feet are going to look like before we’re even close enough to see them properly. Along with increased post-trim sensitivity, they’ll often exhibit:

  • A loss of solar concavity i.e. flattening of the soles as the coffin bone descends
  • Sole bruising, particularly below the coffin bone
  • Separation of the white line at the toe, eventually extending all the way around the hoof
  • Flaring of the hoof wall at the toe, eventually extending all the way around the hoof
  • Horizontal rings and waves in the hoof wall rather than normal straight growth
  • Frequent hoof abscessing
EL - Hoof Oblique

…reveals a near-complete loss of solar concavity…

Unfortunately, and to the disservice of horses and horse owners (and hoof care providers), many veterinarians have been slow to keep up with research on this condition, instead clinging to the outdated belief that horses presenting with clinical symptoms consistent with laminitis (some of which are listed above) but without an “obvious” cause for laminitis must actually have some other condition. Yet, as a recent article in The Veterinary Journal points out –

Endocrinopathic laminitis is now recognized as the most common form of naturally occurring laminitis in horses and ponies presenting primarily with lameness in developed countries….An earlier misconception that laminitis was predominantly associated with sepsis or SIRS arose from its prevalence in equids treated at veterinary referral hospitals, where laminitis research is concentrated….This misperception was highlighted by a large epidemiological study in the USA, which showed that grain overload, retained placenta, colic or diarrhoea accounted for only 12% of owner-reported cases of laminitis; the remainder were associated with dietary problems or obesity, or were of unknown cause. Subsequent, more convincing studies from the USA and Europe identified endocrinopathies (i.e. “hormone problems”) in 90% of cases of laminitis in horses/ponies presenting for lameness. (Patterson-Kane, J.C., et al. “Paradigm Shifts in Understanding Equine Laminitis.” The Veterinary Journal, vol. 231, 2018, pp. 33–40)

EL - Hoof Bottom

…and the beginnings of a stretched white line at the toe!

Please be aware that improper trimming can also cause some of these same symptoms, and it can occasionally be challenging to sort out the real culprit! But if you haven’t changed hoof care providers and your horse is now showing signs of having sensitive feet, you should first consider whether or not any or all of the following are true.

If your horse is:

  • Objectively overweight i.e. a Body Condition Score (BCS) of 6 or higher,
  • Regularly consuming more calories than are required to maintain his body weight,
  • No longer doing as much work as he was previously doing, but his caloric intake hasn’t been reduced,
  • Being fed differently than when he was sound, including treats and supplements, and/or
  • Consuming any grass,

there’s an extremely good chance the sensitivity he’s experiencing is a symptom of the early stages of endocrinopathic laminitis. Again – your vet probably won’t recognize it as such, because most veterinarians simply don’t have the experience or expertise to recognize the subtle (at least to them!) changes in the feet that signal potential disaster looming over the horizon. But the foot is a marvelous “early warning system” for dietary and other health/management issues, so if your hoof care provider is properly trained – admittedly a big “if” as well – he/she should see what the vet and others may not. So ask questions, and listen carefully to the answers. I can’t emphasize this enough: endocrinopathic laminitis, like any other form of laminitis, is an extremely painful condition, yet the condition can usually be avoided if the diet is properly managed. And while it’s definitely treatable, with full recovery possible, it’s certainly much easier to spare you and your horse by attempting to prevent it in the first place by ensuring your horse stays at a healthy weight (4.5 – 5.5 BCS).

Contrary to what most horse owners I talk to seem to think, it’s really neither difficult nor time-consuming to do the math to figure out approximately how many calories your horse requires to maintain a proper body weight for the amount of work he’s doing. But keep in mind that all calorie information and feed calculations are based on weight, not volume, which means that whomever feeds your horse should be weighing his hay and feed. And although you should only need to correlate weight with volume once for a given brand and type of feed e.g. “this orange scoop full of HappyHorse Brand SuprGood Feed has a net (feed) weight of 3 pounds,” hay varies tremendously and each feeding should be weighed!

Remember: In order to help prevent possible endocrinopathic laminitis problems, it’s extremely important that you be objective about your horse and his situation:

  • Be honest about your horse’s current weight and BCS
  • Be honest about how much work your horse is actually doing
  • Be honest about what your horse should weigh
  • Be honest about what and how much your horse is consuming

I realize many horse owners think horses are “supposed” to be round-looking, or that horses look “healthier” or “cuter” with “a few extra pounds.” But believe me: they’re not, it’s not, and they don’t! So please do the right thing and do right by your horse.

I intend to cover treatment options for the horse who does develop laminitis in a future article. But for now, let me just mention that putting shoes on a laminitic horse – even a mildly laminitic one whose only obvious symptom is foot sensitivity – is absolutely the wrong thing to do, and will actually increase pain and delay healing in spite of what others may try to convince you of! So if you find yourself in that situation, do your horse a huge favor and resist the urge to shoe him; I promise you I’ll provide a well-thought-out and logical explanation in an upcoming article.

And what of the Morgan described at the beginning of this article? Well, after a great deal of discussion with the owner, including assurances that her horse wasn’t going to starve to death any time soon, we managed to convince her to eliminate the “just over twelve pounds of feed a day” from her horse’s diet. And just as has been the case with other clients’ horses, his feet recovered fairly quickly. In fact, by the time his next trim came around a few weeks later, the sensitivity was gone and the sole tissue was a normal consistency with obvious returning concavity!

I do feel compelled to say that in this particular situation, I place a lot of the blame for the horse’s pain on the veterinarian’s lack of proper education, although I cannot say for certain whether the feeding regimen was the vet’s idea, the owner’s idea, or a combination of both. Regardless, even a few minutes of contemplation should lead any reasonable person to figure out that adding nearly 19,000 calories per day to any horse’s diet – particularly one whose caloric intake should be in the 13,000 – 14,000 total calories per day range – makes absolutely no sense at all.

As I keep saying: Question everyone and everything, no matter the source of the advice…and don’t overfeed your horse!

Remembering Vera

Vera Ellen Bremseth photo

Vera Ellen Bremseth 1939 – 2018

In 1982, as an unintended consequence of accepting an engineering position with Altec Lansing in Oklahoma City, OK, I had the exceedingly good fortune to become acquainted with the Bremseth family: three individuals who would arguably become the most important people in my life for the next thirty-some years.

I previously wrote about my relationship with the husband/father Gerald, a truly brilliant engineer and remarkable human being whom I continued to work closely with until his untimely demise in 2013, in my Post called Tribute to an Unsung Hero, so I won’t say any more about him here. Sadly, the focus of this Post must now be on his wife Vera, who passed away mere days before my recent trip to the UK to conduct a Liberated Horsemanship Gateway Clinic.

How do you sum up the granddaughter of a respected physician/state senator and princess of the Chickasaw tribe, and daughter of an Army lawyer stationed all over the United States with his family, in just a few sentences? Vera probably had the richest and most varied set of life experiences of anyone I’ve ever met! A teacher by training, she spent much of her life working with and for various arts- and education-related organizations such as the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the Ouray County Historical Museum, the Foothills Craft Guild, and the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, establishing education programs, managing gift shops and shows, and handling public relations and marketing tasks.

But mostly, for myself and for many, many others who were fortunate enough to have their lives touched by Vera, she helped people. Without question, she was the most generous person I’ve ever known; she would’ve given a total stranger her last dollar or the clothes off her back if she believed they were truly needed. But she was so much more as well – a genuine force of nature: always the polite, well-turned-out lady, intelligent, wise, and inherently benevolent, she was also fiercely loyal to, and supportive of, her friends and family. Being at odds with Vera was definitely done at one’s own peril (a position I somehow always managed to avoid).

In fact, the last time I saw Vera, we were attempting to have dinner together in Maryland at a very busy restaurant. The hostesses kept putting us off, and, after a very lengthy wait, finally told us our table was ready and then seated another party at it instead. By this time, I had complained to the hostess several times about the delay, and then about giving our table away, but without any obvious effect on the situation. Finally, Vera decided she’d had enough. I have no idea what she said to the hostess, but the next thing I knew, we were being shown to a table by multiple people who were practically falling over themselves apologizing! As I said, it never paid to cross her!

Vera and I had a wonderful relationship consisting of every positive aspect of one between mother and son coupled with that of the best of friends. We spoke multiple times each week, and, like it or not, I cherished her advice because I could always count on her to tell it to me straight and it was nearly always spot-on. And she definitely had a sense of humor as well, as you may glean from the photograph below. After all, how many people do you know who’d willingly pose for a portrait wearing a pink plastic raincoat while holding a friend’s stuffed Highland cow wearing a (custom-made!) raincoat?

Photo of Vera & me

Vera & Me at Niagara Falls, Ontario – 2015

This wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that Vera loved real animals as well, and at times they had as many as five dogs and two cats in the house. Most were strays of one sort or another; just as with people, Vera looked for opportunities to help animals too – to the extent that Gerald used to say he hoped to come back as one of Vera’s dogs because she took such good care of them!

But for me, one of the most memorable things about Vera was her laughter. The four of us – Gerald, Vera, their daughter Victoria, and myself – spent a great deal of time together over these past thirty-six years, and Vera would regularly laugh as I regaled her with one of my crazy stories about my own crazy life! I really liked that she said I always made her laugh, and I know she looked forward to those visits and conversations as much as I did. She was a very special person to me, and one particular kind of conversation we had many times over the years sticks in my mind. I’d frequently return to the house at 2AM or so, having been out listening to jazz in one or more of the clubs in Knoxville, and I always feared waking her as I came in through the front door and crept up the stairs to my room:

Me: “I hope I didn’t wake you up this morning. Sorry it was so late when I came in.”

Vera: “Nope. Didn’t hear a thing. And I’m not your mother.”

You’re absolutely right, Vera: you weren’t my mother. You were so very much more to me than that. Thanks for all the wonderful memories and everything else you’ve given me these many years, and I trust you can still hear my crazy stories and you’re still laughing…somewhere…

…and Always With Love.

What’s Next?

This coming year promises to be an exciting one, for a variety of reasons that should be of interest to my readers!

First of all, I’m extremely happy and proud to announce that my new Austrian-born wife Dora has completed her instructor certification in Straightness Training, making her only the second person in the United States to earn the instructor designation. This method of training, established by Marijke de Jong of the Netherlands, is all about working towards overcoming the horse’s natural asymmetry through carefully-designed ground and riding exercises to allow them – not force them – to comfortably achieve proper collection and movement. Having watched the profound improvements in my own horse and others, I cannot say enough positive things about this method of bringing a horse into balance; if you want the most from your horse in terms of performance and behavior, please consider checking out Straightness Training!

Dora working with a horse

Dora working with a horse

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, we’ve noticed that as the horse’s body becomes more symmetrical, the hooves become more symmetrical as well (Dora is also a Certified Hoof Care Professional). As I’ve said many times in the past, hoof form is the effect of movement and not the cause; long-term balanced movement will produce symmetrical hooves, whereas asymmetries in hoof form can nearly always be traced to conformation and movement, and/or improper trimming. This is but one of the research topics I hope to embark upon in this new year.

But there are lots of other exciting things in the works as well! I’m particularly looking forward to Liberated Horsemanship‘s upcoming hoof clinic in northern England in March, up near the Scottish border. People have been asking us to do a clinic in the UK for years, and I’m very pleased that we’re finally able to make the trip. We’ve put together a brief video about the Liberated Horsemanship clinics that describes the clinics and their content in more detail, with interviews with three of the instructors. And please share the video with your friends and associates. But…we only have a few UK spots left, so please register soon for what promises to be a great experience!

Stonegarthside Hall - site of the upcoming LH clinic in northern England

Stonegarthside Hall – site of the upcoming LH clinic in northern England

We’ve also produced a version of the video for our German-speaking friends, featuring Dora speaking her native language with the instructor interviews subtitled in German. As I discovered while doing hoof lectures in Austria, there is a great deal of interest in natural hoof care in both Germany and Austria, and I’m hopeful that some of our German-speaking friends will consider joining us in the UK, especially since Dora will be along to offer language support as necessary. Links to the English and German version videos, respectively,  are below –

For those of you who aren’t able to join us in the UK, we’ll once again be offering our Gateway Clinic in the U.S. this June, in our fourth appearance at The Ohio State University ATI in Wooster, Ohio. Please consider joining us for one of these clinics; I promise you won’t be disappointed!

And I have several research projects I hope to be able to report on this year, including my ongoing movement and landing analysis, some product reviews, and several new products of my own aimed at both horse owners and hoof care providers. Plus, I’ve resolved to get back to writing more articles.

That’s enough resolutions! All for now…

What Are You Really Paying For?

I love numbers! More correctly, I suppose, I should say that I love the fact we can always learn something useful from numbers because they can be relied upon to tell the truth if we let them. But when things don’t make sense – when the numbers don’t “add up” – it’s time to start asking why!

This all began when recent events prompted me to revisit a topic I touched upon several years ago in The (High?) Cost of Hoof Care: the huge disparity between what farriers charge to shoe a horse, and what farriers (and, consequently, horse owners) perceive to be the value of a properly-done trim. Part of the impetus comes from a client in the process of opening a small full-service horse retirement facility who wanted to offer her boarders another hoof-care option; problem was, the farrier she contacted wouldn’t come out just to trim a single horse! So I decided to do a little investigating into pricing strategies, looking first at data for shoeing versus trimming costs.

According to a survey conducted by The American Farriers Journal of its readers last year, the average nationwide price for trimming four hooves and applying four keg (machine-made) shoes by a full-time farrier was $131.46, while, interestingly, the same work performed by a part-time farrier averaged $94.49. Trimming and resetting those same shoes by a full-time farrier averaged $125.52. To trim a horse, full-time farriers charged an average of $43.13, while part-timers averaged $37.22.

A couple of things to keep in mind about the people who subscribe to The American Farriers Journal i.e. participated in this survey:

  • They’re farriers, not hoof trimmers. I often read this journal in the university’s library – mostly between 1997 and 2014 – but stopped reading it due in large part to the obvious disdain for so-called “barefoot” hoof care and its providers that permeates the magazine’s articles and letters.
  • About 70% of full-time farriers went to a farrier school, for an average of 12 weeks, according to this same survey.

I also found the following results of an earlier survey conducted by the same journal, along with one farrier’s explanation of how he prices his work. Note that the article was published in 2015, but the survey results shown on this graphic from the article are for their 2014 survey –

– from Costa, J. “Pricing for Success.” American Farriers Journal. 11/30/2015

Armed with Mr. Wynbrandt’s formula and numbers, and the 2015 average nationwide shoeing price of $120.19, we should then be able to calculate the 2015 national average cost of trimming a horse. But first let’s find the national average hourly wage for shoeing –

So to obtain the national average, we have to reduce the Hourly Wage to $35.56 per hour. Note that nothing else has changed, because everything else on the list is essentially independent of location.

Armed with our new national average Hourly Wage, we can now calculate the cost of a trim, but first we need an idea of just how long the typical farrier spends trimming a horse. Although I have no hard statistics on that, I’ve often had new clients remark that their previous hoof care person already had the horse completely trimmed in the five minutes or so I spend on each foot! In fact, years ago I asked an experienced farrier how long she takes to trim a horse, and, interestingly, she replied “Five minutes!” And so I’ve used five minutes as the average time it takes for a farrier to trim a horse, which admittedly may be a bit short, but I’ll talk more about that later. So here’s our new average trim cost –

A couple of explanations are in order:

  • I’ve left the Rasp and Tool Replacement amounts the same, although one might argue that the tools required for trimming-only are fewer than those needed for shoeing. However, the tools that wear and need to be regularly replaced – the hoof knife and nippers – are the same for both situations.
  • I’ve calculated the Total Miles by dividing the Vehicle Cost by the 2015 IRS mileage allowance of $.575/mile.

As you can see, even with a severely-reduced labor time, the calculated average cost of a trim still comes out to over $75; yet, according to the survey, the national average that year was only $42.06! Let’s see what we’d have to do to make our trim cost total that number, still pretending that it’s possible to properly trim a horse in only five minutes –

Wait! So in the above scenario, collecting the national average cost of $42.06 for trimming a horse entails driving for an hour and wrestling with a horse for 5 minutes (ha!), but, ultimately, pocketing only $4.92? I’d do far better at MacDonald’s, and (probably) wouldn’t even have to risk my life! That would explain why farriers don’t want to drive to a barn to trim a single horse, but what it doesn’t explain is why farriers themselves believe that (only) trimming a horse is so much less valuable and/or important than trimming and shoeing. After all, the cost differences come down to shoes, nails, and the time required for the actual work, with the “hardware” costs representing a rather small portion of the total picture (contrary to what many horse owners are led to believe, by the way!). So why the huge disparity; why not charge the $75.67 common sense and their own formula prescribe?

One possible answer may be hinted at by an examination of the course of study undertaken during that 12 weeks of farrier school by some 70% of full-time farriers: At what many consider to be the best farrier school in the U.S., anatomy, conformation, and biomechanics appear to comprise only about 3% of the total course content of their Advanced Horseshoeing and Blacksmithing program, with no study of trimming apart from shoeing even mentioned on their web page. And yet, I daresay not a single instructor at this or any other horseshoeing school would argue that the best handmade shoe in the world could possibly make a correctly-balanced hoof when placed on top of an unbalanced trim!

As an interesting contrast, I know that in the Liberated Horsemanship hoof trimming training program, for example, the introductory clinic alone consists of approximately 40 hours of trimming theory along with directly-related topics such as biomechanics and nutrition, and practice. From there, students go on to study individually with field instructors for another minimum of 24 hours, and then typically spend another year or more trimming their own client horses to gain experience before final assessment for certification. When it comes to understanding the hows and whys of proper trimming, that’s a pretty marked difference in education and training as compared to the horseshoeing school’s 12-week advanced training program. And when it comes to the actual process of proper trimming, it also makes it extremely difficult for horse owners to compare skill sets between those who have gone to farrier school and those who have studied in one of the (admittedly very few) dedicated natural trimming training organizations. More recently, the problem has been further compounded by the ever-growing number of “weekend-style” trimming workshops that allege to teach proper trimming in a scant few hours. But, back to the numbers!

So, one might argue that perhaps farriers devalue trimming as much as they do simply because it was only a small part of their studies, and instead see their value as being more directly in the area in which they received the overwhelming majority of their education – making,  modifying, and applying, horseshoes.

Likewise, I might also argue that the work of those hoof care providers who have gained their knowledge about proper trimming techniques through a similarly-in-depth course of study should be worth just as much (minus the hardware costs, of course!) as the farriers’, especially when a more realistic figure for performing a proper trim is considered.

In my opinion – and this is after doing thousands of trims myself, as well as training hundreds of other trimmers from all over the world – one cannot do a proper trim in less than 20 minutes, even on a quiet horse with a minimum amount of hoof to trim. Realistically, I’ve found the average trim time to be somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes, so here’s another look at our numbers with the Labor at 30 minutes and, consequently, the Hourly Wage necessarily adjusted downward again to maintain our national average of $42.06 –

So, realistically, the hopefully-well-trained hoof care provider working for far less than minimum wage still only pockets $4.92 for his/her hour-and-a-half time commitment!

On the other hand, if horse owners (and farriers!) were to consider the skill set of the properly-trained hoof care provider to be commensurate with those of the advanced farrier, albeit in trimming rather than metalworking, the numbers would/should look more like this –

So, what do you think? Is the expertise of your hoof care provider worth it? Would you expect to pay less for a doctor’s visit for a cold rather than a case of bronchitis? Doubtful, because you’re not paying “by the disease;” you’re paying an expert in his/her field for the best diagnosis and treatment possible, regardless of the disease. On the other hand, you would (and should) probably balk at paying the same amount to a dentist for his/her diagnostic abilities with regard to your cold, because there are significant differences in their educations. In fact, I suspect it’s highly unlikely you’d even consider going to the dentist about your cold!

So if the best and healthiest option for your horse turns out to be “only” a trim, then it seems logical that it be carried out by a properly-trained hoof care provider. And if the cost of shoes and nails is really just a few dollars, why would/should you expect to pay the trimmer significantly less than the farrier?

Just some food for thought…

An Introduction to Hoof Care

Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s been way too long since I’ve posted anything, and I apologize for it. But life has been, well, crazy these past few months, so I do have something of an excuse for my apparent neglect. But I assure you I have a variety of interesting articles under way,  several hoof research projects I’m working on, and a number of hoof-related products I’m in the middle of designing, so I definitely haven’t been sitting around on my hands. And as each of these comes to fruition, you’ll be (almost) the first to know – I promise!

Meanwhile, I’ve also spent many, many hours planning, recording, and editing this video on the basics of hooves and hoof care, which I created for several reasons: first and foremost because I wanted to provide a solid resource for the horse owners out there who truly want to understand what I call the “why” of hoof care so they’re in a better position to know whether or not their hoof care provider or veterinarian is telling them the truth; second, because I’ve long desired to try making a video in what I call the “Cosmos” style (remember Carl Sagan?); and third, because I knew going through the process of producing such a lengthy video would help me decide if I’m willing to do it again. The jury may still be out on that last reason!

This 1hr 16min video begins with a look at the knowledge gap of both hoof care providers and horse owners, punctuated by some quotations from Dr. Deb Bennett, followed by a description of the external and internal anatomy of the horse’s lower limb. For this part of the video, I used images from a program called Hoof Explorer, which, although useful for learning basic leg and foot anatomy, uses an incorrectly-trimmed hoof with bad bone placement in its model. Its user interface also suffers from some serious flaws, and I plan on writing about my experiences with it in a review of this product in a later article.

It continues with a discussion of the role of the hoof in the life of the horse, including some great footage of feral horses provided through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and then focuses on the causes of hoof form and the characteristics of properly-trimmed hooves. There’s some slow-motion video of proper landings as well.

And then there’s a description of hoof imbalances and their consequences; what can and cannot be accomplished through trimming and shoeing, and why; and some slow-motion video of bad landings.

It finishes up with a brief examination of why people believe horses are trimmed or shod in a particular style, and how other management issues can adversely affect a horse’s feet. Finally, I discuss what to look for in a hoof care provider, as well as describe some of the challenges faced in transitioning a horse to barefoot.

I’m convinced every horse owner, hoof care provider, and veterinarian can benefit from watching this video, regardless of what he/she believes they already know about hoof care. I also hope you’ll find it enjoyable, and that you’ll share it with as many of your “horse friends” as possible.

And I realize it’s extremely short notice, but if you really enjoy learning about the equine foot, please consider joining us at the Liberated Horsemanship Gateway Clinic 2017 June 5th through June 9th in Wooster, Ohio. There will be much more in-depth coverage of not only the hoof, but also of the other management issues affecting your horses’ well-being. I guarantee you won’t regret it!

(Special thanks to production assistance from Dora, Scott, Andy, Kim, and Woody!)

“Three Little Words” – A Puzzle for Horse Owners

I’m told people don’t say it often enough, but I have to admit to hearing it on a fairly regular basis. In fact, I heard it again not long ago when one of my clients introduced me to a friend of hers with a couple of horses she was having some hoof difficulties with. And so, as I trimmed my client’s horse, her friend watched while I explained what I was doing and why. This particular horse – a Mustang – has wonderful feet that made an excellent aid as I described how some valuable insight into proper hoof wall trimming can be found through careful observation of changes in hoof tissue as the wall is trimmed, and how that relates to the abrasive forces the feral horse is subjected to by nature.


Not surprisingly, this was news to her, although it probably shouldn’t have been since her horses were being trimmed by another “barefoot professional.” But maybe I’m different than most in that I view every trim as not only an opportunity to help the horse, but also the chance to help educate the owner (and any innocent bystanders!) as well.

Unfortunately, there’s way too much bad information out there – thanks, in a large part, to the Internet. The Web has made it all too easy for anyone and everyone – educated or not – to share their brand of “expertise” with the world. I’ve discussed some of these problems with the “expert” side of this bad-information-propagation equation before (see The “Expert Syndrome” and The “Expert Syndrome” Revisited). Much of this seems to be a deliberate effort on the part of the propagators to set themselves apart in the world of hoof care by promulgating variations on a (logically-sound hoof care) theme that manifest themselves as what can only be described as patently illogical theories and practices. Fortunately, most of their information won’t stand up to close scrutiny by even a moderately logical thinker.

Consider, for example, the popular trimmer who uses the rather cryptic phrase “the heels follow the toe” as explanation for her belief that horses’ heels shouldn’t be trimmed. Seriously? No wonder her “after” photos show more distortion of the hoof capsule than the ones taken before she began “helping” them! Others may sound more reasonable at first blush, like another popular trimmer who claims that if the bars of the hoof “grow back quickly” after being trimmed, they must “want to be there,” as if his mere saying-so offers a reasonable alternative explanation for what is simply normal growth not subjected to the same abrasive forces in the typical domestic equine environment as they are in the feral horse’s. My fingernails grow pretty quickly, too; I guess they must “want to be there,” so I’d better stop trimming them!

While it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see an end to this plethora of uninformed/misguided “experts” and their bad information, I can’t help but wonder about the recipient side – the horse owner – and why so many of them are so quick to buy into and share such information without carefully thinking it through. Just a few examples…

One of my clients recently told me about a Standardbred in her barn that apparently “paddles” when he walks. His owner carefully explained to my client how these horses are “bred to walk that way so they don’t interfere when they race.” And how her farrier is now attempting to “correct” the gait by deliberately unbalancing the feet.

Or how about the new client whose friend told her the bars, sole, and frog shouldn’t be trimmed because “whatever should come off will be worn off by the horse walking around.”

Or maybe the client-for-a-single-trim whose veterinarian told her she really needed to put shoes back on her sound horse “just in case.”

Or perhaps the client’s friend who cannot accept that her horse’s ever-increasing lameness issues could possibly be due to her farrier’s (bad) work, because he’s on the board of directors of a prominent farrier organization.


Perhaps the most potentially-serious example of this bad-information problem I’ve personally encountered of late was with my client whose horse’s normally-healthy hooves had begun losing sole concavity, developing white-line separation around the entire hoof wall, and frequently abscessing – all signs of a dietary problem leading to laminitis.

His veterinarian and barn manager both dismissed the idea of diet issues, instead blaming the horse’s problems on his hoof care. The vet carefully “explained” to him that the horse’s feet weren’t trimmed to “look like Quarter Horse feet,” and that the abscessing was caused by the forces at breakover traveling up the “long” toes and constantly bruising the tissue at the coronary band. I’m not going to describe the details of her recommended treatment now, because I may want to write a more detailed article about this entire experience in the future, but let’s just say it involved surgery, reshaping the hooves to “look more like a Quarter Horse,” and shoeing!

Fortunately, this horse owner isn’t one to merely accept what others say, regardless of their level of education, experience, or presumed expertise. He dismissed the vet’s explanation and advice as illogical, and, after discovering the barn manager had been feeding his horse three pounds of vitamin/mineral supplement a day instead of the recommended amount, he decided to move his horse to another facility. Within a few short weeks, the white-line separation had nearly disappeared, the sole concavity had reappeared, and no further abscessing had occurred – all with only dietary changes and without following any of the veterinarian’s recommendations.


My point in bringing up this particular client’s experience is only to hopefully reinforce to you my strongly-held belief that one must always question advice, no matter the source! (For a more in-depth look at bad advice from “experts” that nearly cost one horse his life, check out Toy Story.) Insist any advisor explain his or her recommendations until you feel confident that the logic behind them is sound. Avoid courses of action that strain credibility, or seem unduly complicated and counter-intuitive. The design of the horse’s limbs makes sense; so, therefore, should any advice about caring for them.

The graphics I’ve included in this article illustrate a fine example of a very common practice endorsed by many, many veterinarians and farriers that completely falls apart under close scrutiny. Most people will readily grasp the absurdity of believing tire shape can somehow fix the bend in the axle, yet many will just as quickly accept exactly the same premise when “special” trimming and/or shoeing is touted as a “treatment” for their horse’s splayed or pigeon-toed legs. What, exactly, compels someone to out-and-out reject the former, but never question and, instead, accept the latter? If every horse owner would just take the time to think through every piece of advice, carefully considering not only the source, but also what’s actually being offered, I believe our horses would experience far more freedom of motion and long-term soundness.


I encounter many different types of people from many different walks of life in my hoof care practice. Like the woman I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, a large number of them have suffered through my sometimes lengthy explanations of how and why I do what I do when I care for horses. And what, besides their love for horses, do most of these folks have in common? It’s those “three little words” they utter after the explanations have been offered and considered, most often in light of others’ prior offerings on the same subject:

“That Makes Sense!”

Navicular Disease – Part 3: Treatment & Prevention

Snake oil poster

“Once begun this disease process is irrevocable and unremittingly destructive. There is no cure, no return to normal….It is no doubt true that “cures” of navicular disease with any form of treatment reflect an incorrect diagnosis. One does not cure bona fide navicular disease.”

James R. Rooney, DVM

Difficult words to hear and accept, to be sure, from a man who was undoubtedly one of the few in a position to make such a statement. But before losing all hope for your “navicular” horse, please keep in mind the two very important points I made in Navicular Disease – Part 1: Background and Navicular Disease – Part 2: Diagnosis:

  1. Genuine navicular disease is damage to the deep flexor tendon and the attendant surface of the navicular bone caused by repeated heating of the tendon and bone from friction of the tendon moving across the bone, and,
  2. Genuine navicular disease is much less common than the very large number of (mis)diagnosed horses would lead us to believe.

Understanding and acknowledging both of these points is absolutely crucial to appreciating the existence of so many claims of “curing” navicular disease. According to Dr. Rooney, any such claim of a cure can only mean one thing: the horse in question never actually had navicular disease!

A moment’s thought will reveal why this surely must be true. While the DFT damage might, conceivably, heal if the damage to the navicular bone could somehow magically go away and not perpetuate the damage to the DFT, curing the damage to the articular surface of the navicular bone is no more likely in horses than it is in humans. Why would we see so many knee and hip replacements in people if joint damage could be undone with a dietary supplement or special shoes? Obviously, research into the treatment of various diseases is ongoing, but until someone demonstrates an effective, non-surgical approach for regenerating human cartilage and bone, I certainly wouldn’t expect to see anything that works for navicular disease in horses.

So, at least for the time being, if a horse truly has navicular disease, that damage must be considered permanent. And while it can certainly be managed to some extent, depending on the severity of the disease, it cannot be cured. So since we can’t undo what’s been done, our only viable options are to concentrate on slowing the disease’s progression and minimizing whatever pain is already present. And although I’m certainly not qualified to offer advice on pain management through drug therapy, I do want to briefly comment on one of the most commonly-prescribed drugs for “navicular”  horses: isoxsuprine.

Dr. Rooney pointed out in several of his publications that the most common competing hypothesis to his evidence-based belief that navicular disease is caused by mechanical problems is that navicular disease is, instead, a vascular (blood vessel) disease. In those same publications, he also made some very compelling arguments as to why the vascular hypothesis cannot be correct. Regardless, others’ belief that the disease has vascular origins explains why isoxsuprine – a vasodilator – is so frequently prescribed. After all, if the disease is caused by blood flow problems, it might seem logical to prescribe a drug that purports to increase blood flow. Unfortunately, as pointed out in “The Effect of Oral Isoxsuprine and Pentoxyfilline on Digital and Laminar Blood Flow in Healthy Horses” (Ingle-Fehr, J.E., and Baxter, G.M., Veterinary Surgery, 28 (1999): 154-160), isoxsuprine apparently doesn’t increase blood flow in the horse’s foot! Specifically:

No statistically significant increases in DBF (digital blood flow) or LP (laminar perfusion) were detected over the 10 day treatment period with either isoxsuprine or pentoxyfilline….Neither isoxsuprine nor pentoxyfilline increased blood flow to the digit or dorsal laminae in healthy (non-laminitic) horses.

Granted, because their primary concern was with the use of these drugs in the treatment of laminitis, their study was conducted on what they determined to be laminitis-free horses without regard to other possible foot pathologies. I suppose one might argue that perhaps the drug does, indeed, work on horses with compromised foot circulation but not on normal horses, but that strikes me as highly unlikely. The researchers went on to conjecture as to why isoxsuprine appears to make some laminitic (not “navicular”) horses more comfortable, and concluded that the drug must have a very mild analgesic (pain-relieving) effect unrelated to circulation, since isoxsuprine apparently doesn’t affect blood flow.

For the “navicular” horse owner, therefore, the implications of this study are quite clear: whether or not your veterinarian believes navicular disease is caused by, or related to, circulation problems, isoxsuprine has been demonstrated to have no effect on blood flow in the equine foot. Refer him/her to the aforementioned article if he/she doesn’t believe you. Why give your horse an expensive, unnecessary, and ineffective drug? And if your horse does need relief from pain, there are far more effective and less expensive drugs readily available.

Through understanding the true cause of navicular disease comes the answer to slowing its progression: since the disease is the consequence of repeated heating of the tendon and bone from friction of the tendon moving across the bone, we must minimize the friction and consequent heating. How? Well, let’s review the list of factors that affect friction and heating from Navicular Disease – Part 1: Background:

  1. The degree of front-to-back imbalance in the hoof
  2. The stiffness of the hoof
  3. The hardness of the terrain upon which the horse moves
  4. The speed at which the horse moves
  5. The duration of the horse’s movement
  6. The size of the navicular bone and deep-digital flexor tendon

Given that we’re now talking about real-world horses with less-than-optimal hoof care, we have to add yet another factor that affects the “navicular” horse:

0. The actual length of the hoof relative to its optimal length

When a hoof is properly trimmed, it will be at its shortest possible length without compromising its structural integrity or increasing its sensitivity to terrain variations. Any length in excess of this optimal length, whether from growth or from the addition of a shoe, will increase the amount of time required for the hoof to leave the ground (breakover time) during maximum DFT tension across the navicular bone. Although this probably doesn’t contribute to friction and heating, it does place more strain in the damaged area of the foot we’re trying to protect.

Be aware also that the common practice of using “special” shoes on these horses, such as rolled, rocker, or squared-off toes, has not been found to significantly shorten breakover time; only proper hoof length can minimize breakover time (Back, W., and Clayton, H., Equine Locomotion, (2001): 146 & 149). Note these photos of left front legs at the moment of maximum DFT tension, just before the heels leave the ground –


Adding length to these feet would only add to the time required for the hoof to leave the ground, thus prolonging the period of maximum strain across the navicular bone.

When managing the horse with navicular disease, we obviously have greater control over some of these factors than over others. For example, we cannot change the size of the horse’s bone and tendon, so number 6 can be eliminated from the onset. On the other hand, smart choices for the hardness of the terrain we ride on, coupled with how fast we ride and for how long we ride (numbers 3 through 5), can certainly minimize the amount of friction and heating of the bone and tendon. Remember: slower movement over softer terrain for shorter periods of time causes far less friction than faster movement over harder terrain for longer periods of time, just as less frequent jumps over shorter obstacles causes less friction than more frequent jumps over taller obstacles.

Far and away, though, our best opportunity for slowing the progression of the disease can be realized by minimizing numbers 0, 1, and 2 through proper hoof care. In concrete terms, that means:

  1. Properly trimming the horse so the hoof is optimally short and the coffin joint experiences minimal acceleration at landing i.e. a flat landing, and,
  2. Keeping the horse barefoot to maintain optimal hoof length, allow the foot to deform and absorb energy during initial ground contact and as it is loaded by the weight of the horse, and permit the most rapid breakover possible to minimize DFT strain across the navicular bone.

Unfortunately, these absolutely essential management measures are in diametric opposition to the advice of nearly every veterinarian and farrier. In fact, the most common advice given for the management of the “navicular” horse is the exact opposite of the above: use wedge shoes to elevate the heels and lessen the tension of the DFT across the navicular bone. While at first blush that course of action may seem logical, raising the heels of a horse makes only a small, temporary reduction in the tension of the DFT while simultaneously increasing the tension of the superficial digital flexor tendon, suspensory ligament, and extensor tendon. Much more problematic, however, especially for our “navicular” horse, is the increase in friction and consequent heating of the tendon and navicular bone that occurs with the resultant heel-first landing. In other words, elevating the heels (re)creates the very situation that caused the navicular disease in the first place!

The only situation where I could envision heel elevation as possibly being helpful to a horse with navicular disease would be if the horse were to be kept strictly on a hard, flat surface and limited to brief speeds of no greater than a walk. Think about it: if the horse were kept on a soft surface, the wedges would penetrate the surface with no net elevation of the heels, and if the horse were to move on the hard surface at any appreciable speed, the damage caused by the friction at the DFT/navicular bone interface would be greater than any benefit gained by the slight lessening in DFT tension through raising the heels.

So the first priority in managing the horse with navicular disease must be stopping the progression of the disease by not doing what’s probably been done, in terms of hoof care, for the majority of the horse’s life. Because of the widely-held, but incorrect, belief that horses are “supposed” to land heel-first (see The Myth of the Heel-First Landing series for more information on why this is incorrect), the product of many – I would even say “most” – hoof care providers’ efforts are feet that are incorrectly balanced in the front-to-back (A/P) direction and therefore experience a heel-first landing. As I’ve tried to make clear through this series of articles, long-term heel-first landings are the underlying cause of navicular disease, and the problems begin when horse owners fall into what I’ve termed “The ‘Navicular’ Trap” –

The Navicular Trap

Here’s how it usually plays out:

  1. The horse’s (front) heels are left too long by the hoof care provider
  2. As a result of working on harder ground, the horse becomes heel-sore from repetitive pounding
  3. The vet or hoof care provider diagnoses “navicular,” and raises the heels to allegedly reduce pain
  4. The horse becomes increasingly heel-sore because of increased pounding
  5. As a consequence of the repeated friction and attendant heating at the DFT/navicular bone interface, the horse ends up developing genuine navicular disease

This is a perfect illustration of the so-called gait-lesion-gait principle in action. As Dr. Rooney phrased it in his Biomechanics of Lameness in Horses

The gait abnormality caused by a specific lesion is the gait abnormality which will cause the lesion.

What does that mean? Well, I interpret it like this: if a horse (or anything else) is forced to move in a manner that mimics the gait of a particular pathology, continued movement in that manner will eventually cause the very pathology the gait is indicative of! Specifically, if a horse’s heels are left too long for too long, he will become heel sore and his stride will be foreshortened (a temporary gait abnormality indicative of navicular disease). If his heels continue to be left too long – or worse, are further elevated with wedges – he may eventually develop navicular disease (the lesion), which will then cause permanent heel pain (and a permanent gait abnormality).

So preventing navicular disease and managing the horse with existing navicular disease are actually one and the same process: ensure the horse is experiencing minimal coffin-joint acceleration to the extent possible, using the guidelines above. By doing so, both the sound horse and the “navicular” horse will be moving with minimal resistance and (therefore) maximal efficiency, giving him the best chance possible at long-term comfort and soundness. And that’s the goal!

To reiterate the most important points of this series of articles:

  • True navicular disease is damage to the deep flexor tendon (DFT) and the attendant surface of the navicular bone.
  • Navicular disease is the result of repeated heating of the DFT and navicular bone surface caused by the friction resulting from non-zero-acceleration coffin-joint landings i.e. toe-first or heel-first landings.
  • While it definitely does exist, instances of true navicular disease are far less prevalent than commonly believed.
  • Diagnosing navicular disease cannot be done via radiographs unless the disease is already in its advanced stages, and instead is best diagnosed with MRI or less accurately with a combination of techniques including a thorough patient history.
  • True navicular disease cannot be cured.
  • The two most common treatments for navicular disease – isoxsuprine and wedge shoes – are ineffective (isoxsuprine) and cause further damage (heel wedges).
  • Effectively managing navicular disease and preventing navicular disease both depend on minimizing the underlying cause of the disease (friction) through proper hoof care, which means an optimally-short hoof experiencing a flat landing at the walk.

Above all, don’t lose hope if your horse is diagnosed with “navicular;” in my experience, odds are he doesn’t really have it! It’s much more probable he’s sore from excessive heel length, bad side-to-side balance (i.e. “corrective trimming”), sheared heels from radically different heel lengths, or an infection in his frog – all problems related to improper hoof care. Carefully consider his history and symptoms as well; your halter horse or brood mare isn’t a likely candidate for navicular issues, and a diagnosis of “navicular” in a single front foot or hind feet is probably not correct, either. Find someone who truly understands what proper hoof care is all about (admittedly challenging!), and allow him/her to help you rule out other far more likely possibilities.

In wrapping up this series, please allow me to make just one more point: I’m well aware that much of what I’ve presented – indeed, much of what I present on a variety of subjects, not just on navicular disease – flies in the face of popular thinking and advice. But what it absolutely doesn‘t fly in the face of is logic. If you’ll set aside your beliefs and carefully consider the evidence I’ve presented, I think you’ll agree…

Navicular Disease – Part 2: Diagnosis

Glass Horse Navicular Composite

– still image captures from The Glass Horse: The Equine Distal Limb

As established in Navicular Disease – Part 1: Background, navicular disease is damage to tendon, cartilage, and bone at the interface of the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT or DFT) and the navicular bone as the consequence of heat generated from friction. The friction is the product of slow and/or fast vibration from improper (non-zero-coffin-joint-acceleration) landings, and the disease is the cumulative effect of the heat over a long period of time rather than the result of a singular incident.

As anyone who’s been around the horse world for any length of time undoubtedly knows, a diagnosis of “navicular” is incredibly common. Many veterinarians diagnose navicular syndrome or just plain “navicular” in situations where they see pain in the caudal (rearmost) portion of the hoof they can’t otherwise explain, and diagnose navicular disease whenever they see caudal hoof pain coupled with any sort of radiographic anomaly with the navicular bone.

In my experience, these diagnoses are wrong far more frequently than they’re right. Over the past 20-something years, I’ve examined many horses that have been diagnosed with some sort of “navicular” problem; yet, only 2 or 3 of those horses have had any evidence of what Dr. Rooney would’ve called “genuine” navicular disease. The rest have, in reality, been suffering from other issues – and, I might add, recovered from their lamenesses once the real causes of their problems were identified and properly treated. Just a few examples…

  • I was asked to examine a horse the veterinarian had declared to be in pain due to either her right stifle or her right front navicular bone. She arrived at this diagnosis purely through observation and a flexion test on all four limbs – no physical examination, nerve blocks, or other diagnostic techniques were used. More disturbingly, she apparently didn’t realize that navicular issues would be very far down the list of possible diagnoses for this horse – a middle-aged Morgan broodmare with alleged symptoms in only one foot. As it turned out, the alleged “symptom of pain” ended up being nothing more than normal equine behavior, much to the relief of the owner!
  • I received a call from a horse owner whose veterinarian had diagnosed “navicular,” and instructed the owner to have “special shoeing” used on the horse to “cure” the problem. After a year of following the veterinarian’s advice with no improvement in the horse, the owner contacted me through the university to see if anything could help his horse. Again – there was nothing about this horse that should’ve led to a diagnosis of “navicular;” she was only 6 or 7 years old, and had only been used for trail riding. A 30-second examination revealed that the horse had a very bad infection in the frogs of all four feet. The horse returned to complete soundness after treating the infections.
  • One of the most glaring and nearly disastrous cases of misdiagnosis I’ve yet encountered has already been recounted in Toy Story. In that instance, a diagnosis of navicular disease by several veterinarians, including a so-called “hoof specialist,” nearly cost this horse his life. Once the real problem was diagnosed (White Line Disease) and treated, this horse went on to win a state championship!

Unfortunately, these are by no means isolated cases, but relating more of them here won’t serve any particular purpose. The above anecdotes are absolutely not meant to suggest that navicular disease isn’t real – it definitely is. But it’s certainly not the first or the second or the third thing horse owners or veterinarians should suspect when a horse presents with a lameness, and correctly diagnosing it, particularly in its early stages, entails a thorough understanding of its causes as well as what it is not. And so, when I speak of “genuine” navicular disease, I’m referring only to the condition resulting from actual DFT/navicular bone damage, and not the myriad other presentations of symptoms that end up labeled as “navicular” but really aren’t.

So how is genuine navicular disease diagnosed? Let’s start with the typical symptoms. In the beginning stages of genuine navicular disease, a horse:

  • Will exhibit some degree of vague forelimb lameness affecting both limbs
  • May alternately “point” his front feet
  • May exhibit a foreshortened stride

Obviously, any number of conditions may account for these same symptoms, including mild laminitis and, especially, a horse that’s heel-sore from excessive concussion (much more on that later!). At this point in the diagnostic process, your veterinarian should be thoroughly palpating the limbs for any heat, swelling, and/or tenderness, as well as examining the hooves for signs of bruising, frog infection, and/or abscessing. Just bear in mind that although it’s unlikely (but not unheard of) to have simultaneous abscesses in both front feet, it could also be a combination of problems, such as an abscess in one foot and a pulled tendon in the other leg. Watching the horse move forward, backward, and turn is also very important to help rule out soft-tissue injuries higher up in the body, like sore shoulders or hips.

It’s imperative that any diagnostic work also include the horse’s history. Things like a recent change in hoof care providers or yesterday’s turnout in the mud after being stalled for a week can provide valuable insight into where to look – and, just as importantly, where not to look – for the potential source(s) of lameness.

Assuming other possibilities above the foot have now been eliminated and the horse’s symptoms are consistent with the preceding indications, the answers to the following questions will help include or eliminate genuine navicular disease from the list of diagnosis possibilities:

  • How old is the horse?
  • Does the horse have disproportionately-small feet for his body size?
  • Is the horse shod?
  • Does the horse have an obvious heel- or toe-first landing at the walk?
  • Has the horse been extensively used for jumping, or on pavement or hard ground at speeds faster than a walk?

As mentioned in my examples above, this “equine profiling” process of evaluating risk factors will tend to “stack the deck” either against, or in favor of, a (correct) diagnosis of navicular disease. Since this condition is the result of repeated high-speed or high-tendon-travel-distance (as in jumping) heel- or toe-first landings, a young horse used only for flat work on soft ground is an extremely unlikely candidate for navicular disease; for example, a reining horse. On the other hand, an older horse with a lifetime of “corrective shoeing” that’s been used extensively for cross-country work, or a shod horse with an obvious heel-first landing and a history of extensive use pulling a cart on pavement, is much more likely to have genuine navicular disease.

If the horse’s physical characteristics and history still haven’t ruled out navicular disease, then your veterinarian may suggest nerve blocks as a “next step” in the diagnostic process. By injecting a small amount of a local anesthetic such as mepivacaine HCl into and around the palmar digital nerve, sensation in the hoof can be blocked. In horses with foot pain, the horse will generally “block sound,” or cease to show the lameness, regardless of the cause of the lameness. Because navicular disease is nearly always a bilateral condition i.e. one affecting both legs, the apparent lameness of a horse with genuine navicular disease will move to the opposite leg when either leg is nerve blocked. If it doesn’t, the cause of pain is very probably not navicular disease!

Note that radiographic evidence hasn’t been mentioned at all, and for a very good reason. According to Dr. Rooney –

The x-ray is of little or no use other than to muddle and confuse the picture in the early stages of navicular disease. It can be diagnostic, however, in advanced cases….The first true sign of navicular disease on x-ray is the osteophytes forming around the margins and radiolucent foci in the central area of the navicular bone (where the bone is being reabsorbed and replaced by connective tissue).

And Dr. Rooney isn’t the only one to recognize the potential problems with relying on radiographs to diagnose navicular disease. Take a look at this PowerPoint slide from Dr. Federica Morandi’s VM855 Veterinary Radiology class at the University of Tennessee –

Navicular Degeneration

So the “bottom line” on the use of radiographs for diagnosing navicular disease is this: if it’s an early case of navicular disease, x-rays will not give you a definitive answer either way. The only instance where a radiograph might be useful, then, would be to help differentiate between advanced navicular disease and some other pathology severely affecting both forelegs, such as two fractured coffin or navicular bones.

I also haven’t discussed the use of hoof testers in diagnosing navicular disease, for several reasons – most of which apply to using hoof testers in general. First of all, with sufficient force, a response can be elicited from nearly any horse. Second, since they aren’t calibrated, their use relies heavily on the ability of the person doing the testing to apply a consistent amount of pressure to the suspect and the “normal” hoof. And third, their use also depends on comparing the relative amount of force required to elicit a response on the suspect foot versus the “normal” foot, which, in the case of navicular disease, should be very similar as it’s a bilateral condition! So I think there are more accurate and reliable ways to determine whether or not a hoof is foot-sore.

On the other hand, one extremely useful diagnostic test in cases of suspected navicular disease that’s rarely done in the U.S. is the board test. I’m not certain why it’s so uncommon here; perhaps because it’s noninvasive and easily done using only a plank, veterinarians don’t feel they could justify charging enough for it! But according to Dr. Rooney, it’s a very simple way to eliminate DFT/navicular bone issues from the list of possibilities. If you’ve ever seen a flexion test, you’ve watched the veterinarian deliberately over-flex the coffin, pastern, and fetlock joints for some period, and then immediately walk the horse off and watch for lameness. A board test is essentially the same type of test, except we’re flexing the DFT/navicular bone interface. Here’s Dr. Rooney’s description of the board test in The Lame Horse (1998) –

Place a stout board on the ground in line with the horse and one front foot. Place the foot on the end of the board and lift the other end to about knee height and hold it. Eventually, the horse will take his foot off the board. If he puts the foot flat on the ground, the test is negative. If he immediately stands toe-first on the ground, it is positive and suggests navicular disease. The board test increases the pain because it increases the tension in the deep flexor tendon and the pressure exerted by the tendon on the surface of the navicular bone.

Note that this test, like others, will have false positives because horses can be heel-sore for a variety of reasons. But a negative test, even in one foot, will practically rule out navicular disease as a possible diagnosis, which is precisely why I like this simple, noninvasive test!

Probably the single most useful test for diagnosing genuine navicular disease, particularly early in the course of the disease, is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), because both the soft-tissue (DFT) damage and the beginnings of damage to the cartilaginous surface of the navicular bone can be seen. Unfortunately, MRI facilities for horses are not (yet) very common, and the test is quite expensive. Even so, diagnosing navicular disease still requires that the veterinarian understand what navicular disease is and isn’t.

So, when trying to come up with an answer as to why a particular horse is lame, the possibility of navicular disease will almost certainly cross someone’s mind if the cause isn’t immediately obvious. Just keep in mind this devastating disease is actually much less common than many believe, and reaching a correct diagnosis in its early stages can be greatly helped by understanding why a horse’s physical characteristics and history either support or refute this diagnosis. And keep in mind that, as Dr. Rooney states, “no single test will permit diagnosis of navicular disease,” so if your veterinarian or hoof care provider is suggesting otherwise, or not asking the questions listed above, consider another opinion!

In the last installment in this series, we’ll discuss options for the horse who does, in fact, have genuine navicular disease.

More later!

In the Know

The Ohio State University ATI Campus

I’m very excited to announce that Liberated Horsemanship will be returning to our campus June 6th-10th for another Gateway Clinic! With an ever-increasing global interest in so-called “natural” hoof care on the part of both horse owners and hoof care providers, this clinic offers an unparalleled opportunity to learn proper hoof trimming theory and technique from industry-recognized experts.

Why would you choose this particular training program over any of the others out there? Well, rather than point out what’s wrong with other hoof trimming training opportunities (which, to some extent, I’ve at least alluded to in previous articles), let’s take a look at some of the specifics of this clinic –

Liberated Horsemanship Clinic Information

While all of these factors undoubtedly figure into a person’s decision to choose a particular program, the most important issue in my mind has nothing directly to do with any of them. The deciding factor for me is the material being taught!

Unlike most, if not all, other training programs out there, Liberated Horsemanship’s teaching is absolutely consistent with the lessons learned about the determining factors of hoof form from the feral horses through the early efforts of natural hoof care pioneer Jaime Jackson; in other words, true natural hoof care. As such, this training program will equip the student to trim every hoof form successfully, regardless of size, breed, use, or pathology present.

The organization itself is unlike any other as well. Here are some statistics about just a few of its distinguishing characteristics –

Current number of program faculty:

Thirty (30)

Existing areas of specialization and research among the faculty:

Agronomy, architecture, biomechanics, booting, dentistry, endocrinology, engineering, ethology, hoof care, hoof pathology, laminitis, nutrition, parasitology, physiotherapy, veterinary medicine

Types and levels of certification currently offered:

Certified Hoof Care Practitioner, Certified Booting Specialist, Master Hoof Care Professional

Current instruction delivery methods:

Clinics, workshops, field instruction

For many people, two of the greatest benefits of this training program are the ongoing option of re-attending any previously-taken clinic or workshop at no additional cost (as many times as you want!), and the availability of the faculty as a support network. Quite a few of our students avail themselves of both of these; it’s fairly common to have students retake clinics 2 or 3 times, and receiving emailed or texted photos of unusual or problematic hooves along with questions is also a regular occurrence. And with such a diverse faculty, getting answers from recognized experts on difficult questions of not only hoof care, but on practically any equine-related issue, is relatively easy!

The learning environment for this clinic is also extremely pleasant. The agricultural branch of The Ohio State University, where the clinic is being held, is located in the small city of Wooster, Ohio, with a number of easily-accessible shops and restaurants on the edge of the largest settlement of Amish in the United States. Horse-drawn buggies and picturesque farms abound, and we’ll make at least one visit into Amish country to a very large farrier supply shop.

Downtown Wooster

As part of the clinic offering, there will also be a free, open-to-the-public event on Friday evening, June 10th featuring both Liberated Horsemanship and university faculty. Dr. Jessica Bedore will discuss the feeding issues associated with many older horses who have trouble maintaining body weight and condition. Master Hoof Care Professional Ann Corso will talk about hoof quality and its relationship to a horse’s overall health and happiness, and Dr. Bruce Nock will explain why obesity and insulin resistance – increasingly-common problems in our equine population – are not simply a matter of overfeeding. This promises to be an entertaining and informative evening, so regardless of whether or not you attend the entire clinic, please consider joining us for this special Friday night event!

Why Liberated Horsemanship YouTube Video

I strongly believe in this training program, and not just because I’m one of the faculty! As I explain in the brief YouTube video above, I truly believe this program offers unrivaled learning opportunities for everyone: prospective hoof care professionals, existing hoof care providers, and horse owners who wish to further their knowledge of proper horse management methods. Will you leave any clinic an “expert?” Of course not. But I guarantee you’ll walk away from this one with a whole lot more knowledge about horses and their hooves than you came in with, along with new friends beside you and an entire support network behind you.

Won’t you consider joining us?

Navicular Disease – Part 1: Background

Photo of Coffin Bone with Navicular Bone

It’s a relatively small bone – about the size of a human thumb in the average horse. It bears no direct weight, doesn’t join any other bones together, and is rarely broken. And yet, it’s the alleged culprit in many, many cases of equine lameness. Without a doubt, no part of the equine hoof is as misunderstood, yet subject to incrimination for every bad step a horse takes, as the navicular bone. To quote Dr. James Rooney, the renowned equine pathologist –

Despite thousands, or perhaps millions, of words, navicular disease remains a subject of confusion and error.

There’s been a “method to my madness” in my past three articles (plus The Hoof Landings Tower of Babel, which wasn’t part of the original plan!) entitled The Myth of the Heel-First Landing. In addition to addressing the commonly-held misconception that horses are “designed” to land heel-first, the material was presented to help prepare the reader for coming to terms with the information I’ll be presenting on navicular disease. In this series of three articles, I’m going to attempt to shed some light on the navicular bone and hopefully allay some of the fears the horse owner experiences when he or she hears a diagnosis of “navicular” by the veterinarian. This particular installment will concentrate on an explanation of the role of the navicular bone in support and locomotion, and discuss how and why damage can occur. Part 2 will describe how navicular disease is diagnosed (and misdiagnosed), and the final article will focus on how to treat and/or manage the “navicular” horse.

photo of cutaway hoof

As you can see in the photo at the beginning of this column, and in the above photo of a cutaway cadaver hoof, the navicular bone (A) lies right behind the coffin (pedal) bone (B) and forms part of the coffin joint along with the short pastern (C). You’ll also note the band of grey-white tissue running down the back/bottom surfaces of the bone that connects into the bottom center of the coffin bone. This is the deep digital flexor tendon (D), often abbreviated “DDFT” or simply “DFT,” which is responsible for both helping to stabilize the foot and flexing the foot towards the back of the horse. It also forms part of the “stay apparatus” of the horse – the horse’s suspension. Beneath the DFT is the largest structure in the foot – the fatty-fibrous mass of the digital cushion (E).

The navicular bone is one of three sesamoid bones found in the equine limb – the other two being the pair of small bones at the rear of the fetlock known as the proximal sesamoid bones. The purpose of a sesamoid bone is not to bear weight, but instead to change the direction of the pulling force being applied to a tendon. In this instance, the distal sesamoid bone, or navicular bone, ensures that the pulling force on the bottom of the coffin bone is always from the same direction, regardless of the angle of the pastern bones. Check out the following illustration –

The Role of the Navicular Bone

As you can see, without the navicular bone in place, the direction (and therefore the effective magnitude) of force exerted by the DFT would be highly dependent on the orientation of the long and short pastern bones with respect to the coffin bone. But with the navicular bone acting as a “pulley” to redirect the motion of the DFT, the force on the coffin bone will not change direction when the leg changes position.

So now we have a pulley (the navicular bone) with a rope (the DFT) running across it. Next, consider what Dr. Rooney wrote in Biomechanics of Lameness in Horses about what happens in the foot when the horse lands correctly (i.e. “flat”) –

As the hoof impacts, palmar flexion (rotation) of the coffin joint begins from zero acceleration. If the ground is hard, it will not yield under the hoof impact (will not absorb energy of impact), and the hoof may bounce, hit the ground, bounce again, etc. This bouncing, of course, would not be grossly obvious, but would involve oscillation of the coffin joint by a few millimeters. If the hoof as well as the ground were inelastic, the effect would, of course, be exaggerated. Neither ground nor hoof could yield sufficiently to quickly convert kinetic to potential energy. The energy would remain kinetic, oscillating back and forth between hoof and ground.

For the record: how do I know he’s describing a flat landing in the preceding quotation? The answer is simple: because he states “rotation of the coffin joint begins from zero acceleration.” And the only way that’s possible is if the hoof is contacting the ground flat. So even with a proper landing, there is some amount of vibration (oscillation) of the hoof, relative to the hardness of the landing surface and the inelasticity of the hoof capsule.

In contrast with the equine hoof, there is a considerable body of research on the effects of oscillations on humans’ hands and arms, although there is some dispute over various researchers’ conclusions – largely because differences in the types, frequencies, and durations of exposure used in various studies make analysis difficult. But the symptoms of hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) among people who use various types of vibrating powers tools include destructive joint changes as well as vascular, neural, and muscular problems. In fact, you may be interested to know that it’s considered a serious enough health risk that the limits for vibration exposure for human workers are specified by the International Organization for Standardization (in ISO standard 5349-1)!

In the horse, when the coffin joint oscillates, the deep digital flexor tendon is moving very rapidly and repeatedly across the surface of the navicular bone. Why does that matter? Because when one surface moves rapidly over another surface, the friction between the two generates heating of the surfaces. Think warming cold hands, or starting a fire, by rubbing two things together – same idea. The more rapid and/or more sustained the motion, the higher the resulting temperature. Conversely, with slower and/or less-sustained movement, things don’t get nearly as hot. So, terrain and footwear being equal, a horse that’s moving at low speeds is experiencing less DFT/navicular bone friction, and therefore less heating, than the horse who is moving at higher speeds.

The problem gets much, much worse for the horse who has been trimmed or shod to contact the ground heel- or toe-first. In addition to the lesser amounts of vibration described above, he also experiences very rapid and more prolonged acceleration of the coffin joint at the instant of ground contact, called third-order acceleration, when the hoof “slaps” down as it comes under load. And the more pronounced the heel- or toe-first landing, the more rapid the acceleration and the greater the consequent heating. and landing heel-first or toe-first. That’s pure mechanics: the DFT of the horse who’s landing heel- or toe-first will be sliding farther, longer, and faster across the navicular bone than in a horse who’s landing correctly (flat), even at slower speeds. This is what Dr. Rooney had to say about third-order acceleration resulting from non-zero coffin joint acceleration at the moment of hoof contact i.e. a heel-first or toe-first landing –

In case it has not been said often enough, sudden changes of acceleration cause third-order acceleration, which is vibration: increased friction, turbulence, cavitation, heating, etc. The general case…is that third-order acceleration occurs between the DF and the navicular bone. Vibration, which is third-order acceleration, causes tendon degeneration and navicular arthrosis. The third-order acceleration, in turn, will occur because the coffin joint does not begin rotational movement from zero acceleration.

Sound familiar? It bears a striking resemblance to what’s been well-documented in humans experiencing HAVS, doesn’t it?

So in the simplest terms possible, folks, and in spite of what many people (including many veterinarians) believe, navicular disease is damage to the deep-digital flexor tendon and navicular bone caused by heat, which is caused by repeated heel-first or toe-first landings. In fact, Dr. Rooney, who spent a considerable amount of time researching this subject, reported that he was able to duplicate the physiology of navicular disease (bone and tendon damage) by using an external source of heat on cadaver limbs. Here, then, is an illustration of how and why navicular disease occurs –

The Genesis of Navicular Disease

This is also why feral horses don’t develop navicular disease. As I’ve explained in The Myth of the Heel-First Landing series, the feral horse’s hoof continuously wears itself such that, in general, the hoof (and therefore the coffin joint) does not experience rapid rotation as it makes contact with the ground i.e. it lands “flat.” And because the feral horse lands without the sudden “jerk” that occurs when many of our domestic horses make initial ground contact with the heels or toe and then “slap” the foot down as it comes under load (see the YouTube video accompanying The Hoof Landings Tower of Babel), the navicular bone in the feral horse doesn’t experience nearly as much rapid movement of the DFT across it with every step.

To summarize: whether or not a particular horse will develop navicular disease depends on not just one or two factors, but on a set of conditions that result in enough heating of the area of contact between DFT and navicular bone over a period of time to cause damage. It’s not a matter of any singular event causing the problem, but rather the cumulative effects of repeated “exposure” to vibration, similar to hearing loss or heavy-metal poisoning. All else being equal between horses, those factors include:

  • The degree of front-to-back imbalance in the hoof
    • The more pronounced the heel- or toe-first landing, the greater the distance the DFT travels across the navicular bone, resulting in higher/more-sustained temperatures.
  • The stiffness of the hoof
    • As the inelasticity of the unbalanced hoof increases, the less it can deform to mitigate the forces of impact, resulting in more vibration and consequent higher/more-sustained temperatures.
  • The hardness of the terrain upon which the horse moves
    • Like the stiffness of the hoof, the less the unbalanced hoof is able to penetrate the terrain at the instant of contact, the greater the vibration and resulting higher/more-sustained temperatures.
  • The speed at which the horse moves
    • The faster the horse is moving, the more frequent the coffin-joint rotation, and the greater the buildup of heat.
  • The duration of the horse’s movement
    • As with speed of movement, longer periods of movement of the unbalanced foot will result in higher/more-sustained temperatures.
  • The size of the navicular bone and deep-digital flexor tendon
    • The smaller the size of these structures, the less effectively they can dissipate heat buildup.

Looking at this list should make it apparent why “true” navicular disease (more on that subject later!) rarely occurs in horses that don’t either jump, or trot on paved roads. Those two activities, particularly when coupled with improper hoof care, experience the highest magnitude of (jumpers), and most prolonged (road horses), third-order acceleration of the coffin joint.

I also feel compelled to add that this explanation of the cause of navicular disease is by no means new. Dr. Rooney wrote The Biomechanics of Lameness in 1969! And while that particular book is admittedly quite technical and often difficult to read, both versions of his subsequent book The Lame Horse (1974 and 1998), which are intended more for the horse owner than the veterinarian, also describe this logical, evidence-based theory. Why, then, does there continue to be such a prevalent and profound misunderstanding of the cause of navicular disease among veterinarians, hoof care providers, and horse owners, with its consequent misdiagnoses and illogical “treatments” that cannot possibly succeed?

And that concludes Part 1 of this series! But after reading about the effects of vibration on humans (HAVS), I’m also very curious about whether or not some of the other consequences of vibration, like numbness, may occur in horses as well. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if, over time, the unbalanced horse was actually losing sensation in his feet, and therefore allowing more damage to occur without his being aware of it?

One more thought to leave you with, which will undoubtedly be good news to many, but bad news for others –

In my experience, the overwhelming majority of horses diagnosed with navicular disease or navicular syndrome do not, in reality, have any issues with their navicular bone or deep-digital flexor tendon.

I’ll explain why I feel confident making that statement, as well as why so many horses are misdiagnosed, when I cover diagnosing navicular disease in the next article in this series.

Till next time…