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The Nerved Horse

What you need to know about this procedure to ease a horse's foot pain.

Dr. Omar Maher, New England Equine Medical and Surgical Center, member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners

Hoof health is crucial to a horse's long-term performance. Journal photo

Question:

I am considering purchasing a Quarter Horse that has had a nerve cut out of his front foot because the veterinarian could never figure out why that foot hurt. I was wondering if cutting a nerve and blocking a nerve are the same things or different? How often and how much does this have to be done?

Answer:

Blocking a nerve means injecting a local anesthetic around a nerve. "Nerving a horse" is a surgical procedure during which the nerve supply to the foot is cut. Usually the nerving procedure is reserved for cases of chronic foot pain (i.e. navicular syndrome) that does not respond to therapeutic shoeing and potential coffin joint or navicular bursa injections.

Nowadays, when finances allow it, further diagnostics are performed, such as contrast-enhanced computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the soft tissue structures of the foot and potentially treat them. The nerving procedure is safe in most cases and, for the appropriate cases, allows soundness and use for several years.

There are always risks of fatal complication such as a deep digital flexor tendon rupture, navicular bone fracture or osteomyelitis, although these are relatively uncommon. Other complications include neuroma formation (painful nerve proliferation at the cut nerve end) and nerve regrowth (in some cases happening within a year, but in most cases taking several years to happen).

You need to be very careful with your horse's shoeing. Have him shod with a pad to prevent injury to his sole (bottom of the foot), and check his foot every day for potential foreign body penetration (i.e. nails), as the horse will not feel it.

Overall, buying a nerved horse is not advisable.

Dr. Omar Maher, New England Equine Medical and Surgical Center, member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners