Navicular Syndrome: Incurable? …Maybe
The story of the struggle and rehabilitation of a beloved buckskin gelding
Our buckskin, Doc, was our pride and joy. He was handsome, extremely intelligent and possessed a unique sense of humor. Although Doc came to us as "a push-button heeler", we never had the opportunity to rope off Doc. He was mainly a pleasure/ trail horse and all around solid, steady ride. David, my husband, team-penned on him several times and even went on a weekend trip with The Sheriff's Posse. David and Doc had an enviable bond. They were buddies.
Unfortunately, the later part of 1999 Doc began to exhibit lameness in his front feet; at first we weren't too concerned, as it seemed to come and go. It became very noticeable when Doc was turned in a tight circle. After almost six months of intermittent lameness, our veterinarian performed a series of nerve blocks and x-rays, then diagnosed him with Navicular Syndrome. Doc was not yet 10 years old. My husband and I were devastated. How could this happen to our beloved Doc?, we asked ourselves repeatedly. Was it hereditary? Maybe our farriers weren't as accomplished and knowledgeable as we had believed? How long before Doc would be totally crippled??
There were no answers. All our veterinarian could tell us is that it was incurable. We could try to make him comfortable with therapeutic shoeing and medication. Several days later Doc was fitted with egg-bar shoes and 2-degree pads. At first this appeared to provide him with some relief. However, his stumbling became worse. Shortly after, he started coming up lame again. We blamed it on the humidity, on the ride the day before, or maybe he just ran too much in the pasture that day…? On the bad days we gave him 'bute'. The bad days were beginning to outnumber the good ones.
Doc's future looked pretty grim. I remember sitting on the patio watching him limp around, tears would swell in my eyes and I'd have to go inside and busy myself in order to keep from breaking down. When I was out and about doing chores, Doc would limp over to me and the pain in his eyes would produce a knot in my throat that made me choke. David, my husband was devastated. Doc was his first horse and his dearest friend. I continued to try and be the strong one and tell David that we would give Doc the best care we could and if the pain was too much we would gracefully make the decision to put him down. Neurectomy was not an option for us; as a nurse I couldn't tolerate numbing a foot. This was no cure, and I imagined myself walking around with no feeling in my feet. Then imagined riding an animal with numb feet. Pretty dangerous, I thought.
In October of 2000, while doing research on the Internet, I came across a German doctor that claimed she was curing foundered and navicular horses. I went on a mad frenzy of research, reading and reading more about her. I located a place to purchase her 2 books that were translated into English. I ordered them and started to try and contact people who had some experience with her method. All that I contacted were very positive and very willing to share their stories with me. As soon as I received the books, I spent every spare moment reading. After finishing the first book I went to David and said, "Dr. Hiltrud Strasser has cured over 2000 foundered and navicular horses; these are horses that were on their way to the killers." I handed him the book, "A Lifetime of Soundness". I remember David's eyes looking up at me, finally, with a glimmer of hope. "Read it," I said, "and then tell me it doesn't make perfect sense."
David read the first book and his excitement started to equal mine. When I finished reading the second book' "Shoeing: A necessary evil?" My understanding of the hoof was like entering a new world. My questions were answered. I understood the mistakes I had made in caring for our horses. I understood why confinement is the horse's worst enemy. I learned how shoeing horses originated. I realized that Dr. Strasser's theory was not really new and radical. Dr. Bracy Clark, a veterinarian, working at the Royal Veterinary College in the early 1800s, published works on the ill effects of horseshoes. I learned that the Romans in ancient times did not shoe their horses. Xenophon, the author of "The Art of Horsemanship", written twenty-three centuries ago, never mentioned shoes. Along with all the previous work done on horseshoes, Dr. Strasser added her twenty-some years of research and put it all together. Understanding the anatomy and physiology of the hoof made me realize that we would be foolish not to try her theory. David and I now pondered new questions. What if we could really turn Doc around?? Why not try it? What did we have to lose? We were getting nowhere with conventional methods. Doc was progressively getting worse.
I contacted our veterinarian, and told her of our decision. She was not encouraging. Yes, she had heard of Dr. Strasser, but her opinion was that her methods were causing horses a lot of pain. I believe she even said that Dr. Strasser was too radical. She finally said that as owners we had to do what we thought was best. Thinking back on her reaction, I understand. If out of the blue a patient came and told me that they were going to try something new for a disease that I had been taught was incurable, I would probably react much the same way. "Some quack out there is going to take their money and promise them the impossible," would probably be my thoughts.
The majority of our friends thought we were nuts. My argument to David was, "They haven't read the books, how can they judge her? They haven't spoken with people who are currently doing this, I have. Why would these people lie to me and tell me all was going well, if it wasn't?"
David and I continued to discuss the pros and cons, and pour over Dr. Strasser's books.
Finally, December of 2000, I contacted one of Dr. Strasser's Hoof Care Specialist students who, fortunately, lived near us. We decided to pull Doc's shoes and have James, one of Dr. Strasser's students, give him his first Strasser trim. The date was set for January 21, 2001. We started making changes to our horse set-up to accommodate Dr. Strasser's recommendations for a natural life style - no more confinement of any kind for any of our horses. We moved fencing and added back gates to our mare motel. We already fed them Bermuda hay, so there was no big change in diet. I continued to study her books; I knew that this was not just about a trim but a whole new lifestyle.
A lifestyle for the good of our horses
January 21 arrived and so did some of our friends, anxious to watch the big event. James was also going to trim some of their horses, but Doc was the only one that had Navicular Syndrome.
David brought Doc up from the pasture; he was limping. Our farrier friend pulled Doc's shoes and walked Doc up to the wash-rack where James was doing the trimming. As James trimmed Doc's left hoof, he talked about hoof mechanism, and the differences in trimming a sound hoof as opposed to a contracted hoof. Then he told us that he would have to trim Doc's right hoof fairly fast, because the feeling would start coming back to his left freshly trimmed hoof. He explained that Doc would experience somewhat the same feeling as we did when our hand or foot fell asleep and the feeling started to come back - in other words, that pins and needles sensation. Sure enough, James wasn't but a few minutes into the right hoof when Doc started fidgeting and pulling away; when he would give him his right hoof back, Doc would stretch his left leg out almost as if he was going to paw at the ground. It was amazing to watch, Doc was getting blood supply to parts of his hoof that he hadn't felt for quite some time. When the trim was done David turned Doc loose and we all watched him walk though the arena to the pasture. Yes, he acted like he was walking on eggs, he was understandably sore. As long as we had owned him he had never been barefoot (he was four when we bought him). But....he wasn't limping anymore. Doc hasn't been lame since, not since January 21, 2001.
Doc was sore for about 4 days, but he continued to walk around, lying down twice a day for about a half hour each time. I watched him like a hawk, as I knew that through the healing process, movement is imperative. His hoof now had increased blood supply and the only thing that would keep that blood from pooling was movement. The fourth day, Doc came trotting up the arena, again I suppressed the tears. We had done the right thing, I knew then that Dr. Strasser was right, restore hoof mechanism and the hoof will repair itself. All we had to do was provide the correct environment and help that hoof decontract itself. That evening as David came home from work, my first words were, "Doc trotted through the arena." "By himself?" he asked. "Yep!" I answered with a smile on my face.
We have been following the Strasser Method with all our horses since January 2001. Doc continues to amaze us. He has not shown any sign of lameness since that day. He crosses his front feet effortlessly; he can travel in tiny circles both ways with no discomfort. His stumbling is a thing of the past. David rides him in the desert, on the asphalt, etc. with no problems.
When I think back on all that has happened, I still marvel at Doc's recovery. Due to all the previous information about Navicular Syndrome and the poor prognosis we had accepted, to us, Doc is proof that not all things are as they seem. Upon investigation of the symptoms and causes of Navicular, I realized how much Dr. Strasser's theory makes sense.
Speaking of Navicular, let me share with you what I have learned. Veterinarians cannot seem to agree on when heel contraction becomes Navicular Syndrome. Where is that magical line when a horse with heel pain because of contraction is diagnosed with N.S. rather than heel pain/contraction? As for changes in the navicular bone, it is my understanding that those can be seen in a sound horse, without any signs of lameness. The one thing that they all seem to agree on is that the heel pain is caused by heel contraction. So, their approach is: to get the weight off their heels. To me that is avoiding the issue. Are you curing anything? No! It's like when you go to the doctor and tell him your shoulder hurts when you raise your arm. so he says, "Don't raise your arm, and by the way, take this medication and come back in a week." I know this sounds simplistic, but actually it is. Heel pain is caused by contraction; contraction is caused by poor shoeing and/ or poor trimming techniques. So....let's remove the cause, and encourage the hoof to decontract and see if the pain goes away. Well, guess what? It did go away.
Is the Strasser Method easy? No, it is not. It requires study and dedication and finding someone who really knows how to do this trim. I firmly believe that the Dr. Strasser controversy stems from people trying to do this trim without proper training and experience. Then things don't go well and who gets blamed? Dr. Strasser, not the person who trimmed the horse or the horse owner who didn't read the books and understand and provide the proper care. For most people it means changing their entire way of thinking. Change is never easy. Let us be honest, we were willing to try this method because we had run out of options; yes, we were desperate. We couldn't bear to watch our beautiful Doc in pain anymore and our only other option was to put him out of his misery. Yes, we were skeptical and afraid to jump into this method; wouldn't you be if everyone around you thought you had lost your mind? But we had no other options, other than say good-bye to our Doc. So, we braved the criticism and the judgments and chose to believe that Dr. Strasser's findings were true and accurate. One thing is to read about the theory, understand it and have it make sense to you, but another thing is bring it home and live it.
Several people have asked me if I would do it again, knowing what I know now. My answer is: yes! in a heart-beat! And furthermore, if we had the finances and the land, I'd be at auctions buying navicular horses and rehabilitating them. There is no doubt in my mind that this method is effective, if done correctly. That is the secret; it has to be done correctly, by someone with the proper training.
Dr. Strasser's books can be purchased at www.thehorseshoof.com; this site contains success stories and more informational links on this method. You can also read Dr. Strasser's nomination to the International Equine Veterinarians Hall of Fame by Dr. W. Robert Cook.
For questions about Doc and his rehabilitation,
feel free to contact Claire and David through their web site: