Horses are to 85-year-old Frank Gravlee as Scottish accents are to Sean Connery — just part of life.
Gravlee, -— a dead ringer for Connery, from the white, meticulously trimmed beard to the distinguished nose and stature — was raised on a small Fayette County farm. His early days on horseback led “Dr. Frank,” as employees call him, to a revolutionary invention for the equine industry.
In 1983, his Farrier’s Formula, the first research-based nutrition supplement for horses, hit the market. An estimated 50,000 horses now consume the supplement daily.
“Horses are the ideal specimen for nutrition experiments,” said Gravlee, a veterinarian who settled in Florence after graduating from Auburn University in 1956.
A decade later, he headed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a master’s degree in nutritional metabolism and pathology. He spent seven years researching nutrition in Birmingham before headed back to north Alabama.
Historically, hooves had been treated externally, but Gravlee’s years of research triggered an idea. Why not protect a horse’s hooves from the inside out?
And so Farrier’s Formula, a pelleted feed supplement, was invented at Gravlee Animal Hospital in downtown Florence. The supplement originally was mixed using a canoe paddle in galvanized tubs. That evolved into Life Data Labs, Inc., which makes 500,000 pounds of product monthly, 500 times the production 30 years ago.
The supplement’s blend of nutrients allows horses to build strong connective tissue, which provides healthy hoof structure and growth. Farrier’s Formula also promotes a glossier coat and stronger joints and ligament connective tissue, Gravlee said.
“I can’t tell you how many calls we got asking, ‘How do I break these pellets down to rub on the hoof?’” he said, sifting through the pelleted mixture that horses are eager to eat.
Life Data Labs moved to its current location outside Cherokee, Alabama in 1986, and today, the 15-employee plant is fully automated with room to grow.
“Proper nutrition is what helps a horse,” said Phil Oliver, the plant operations manager who has helped Gravlee since the mid-1980s. “Dr. Frank created something out of his love and desire to help horses.”
To sell the breakthrough product, Gravlee went straight to the farrier, another unprecedented move.
“Life Data Labs was one of the first manufacturers to give farriers the opportunity to be dealers,” said Gravlee. “We made farriers part of the business aspect of the industry.”
He even named Farrier’s Formula, which was originally called Hoof and Hair, after the men responsible for the product’s success.
Ron Yates, a 63-year-old farrier from Clanton, has fiercely promoted Farrier’s Formula for 20 out of his 44 years as a farrier.
“I tried some other products, but nothing compares to Farrier’s Formula,” said Yates. “The hoof growth is better, and the amount you feed is less.”
Yates has never met Gravlee, but said he’d go to bat for Farrier’s Formula any day.
“I never recommend anything else,” Yates said.
Farrier’s Formula isn’t just farrier-approved. It’s scientifically proven, too.
In 1990, the University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Sue Kempson published independent results proving Farrier’s Formula improved horses’ connective tissue strength.
Although one-third of Life Data Labs’ products are sold internationally, all products are still researched, produced, packaged and distributed out of Cherokee.
Because of its export success, Life Data Labs was awarded the Governor’s Trade Excellence Award in March 2016.
“We’ve had people from Tuscumbia go to Europe and find out about Farrier’s Formula,” said Gravlee.
“We don’t know how many thoroughbred winners are on Farrier’s Formula,” said Linda Gravlee, Life Data Labs’ CEO and Gravlee’s wife. “The trainers don’t give away their secrets.”
Over the years, the Gravlees turned down multiple buyout offers, adding they’ve never been tempted to hang up their spurs.
“You don’t have to be big to be good,” said Gravlee. “I’m almost to the point where I think you have to be small to be good.”
Since Farrier’s Formula’s debut, Life Data Labs has branched out with products including Barn Bag, a forage balancer; Compose, a horse-calming supplement; Life Data Hoof Clay, an antimicrobial clay; and Breeder’s Formula, a canine nutrient supplement.
“I learn something from my father every day,” said Dr. Scott Gravlee, who took over the veterinary practice in 1984 so his father could focus on research. Scott joined Life Data Labs full time in 2004 and tackles new research issues like metabolic and blood glucose problems.
While Life Data Labs, Inc. is leagues away from its humble start selling Farrier’s Formula in used pickle jars, one thing remains the same.
“Farriers are still our No. 1 salesmen,” said Gravlee, who also supports a program helping injured farriers.
Gravlee has achieved worldwide recognition, but not always for Farrier’s Formula.
“At a conference in Switzerland several years ago, tourists confused Frank with Sean Connery,” Linda said with a laugh. “They wouldn’t believe it wasn’t him!”
For more information visit LifeDataLabs.com.