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The Story of Leo

by Maggie Owens


I thought you might like to read about Leo, a horse who made a miraculous recovery and led to the creation of Gen-A-Horse -- the first biotin supplement for horses.

For many years, my father and I took lessons at a hack barn in Staten Island. In the mid-80's I got my own horse, an unpapered Morgan gelding I named Sir Galahad, and we moved him to a quieter private stable on another part of the island. We still had many friends at the old stable and we often saw them at shows and foxhunts. (Being animal lovers, we never participate in real foxhunting, but we enjoy mock hunts and hunter paces tremendously.)

In late 1983, several friends from the old stable mentioned that a horse we had ridden often, Leo, had foundered a number of times and looked like he was at death's door. They wondered if he would last until spring. His condition was complicated by routine mistreatment -- he was often sent out on a dozen rides a day, and allowed to eat and drink without even a short walk to cool off.

Both of us had a special fondness for Leo -- he was so beautiful and had such a wonderful personality. We felt that we should go see for ourselves how our old friend was doing. Our friends hadn't exaggerated. Poor Leo could barely walk. Most of his coat that was covered with mange and he was uniformly lackluster and dirty, all his ribs were showing and his hips jutted out so far, he was just a bunch of crazy angles. All that beautiful spirit was gone from his eyes. Leo was a papered quarter horse, just twelve years old, but he looked like a 30 year-old nag, and an ugly one at that.

We decided that we owed it to Leo to take him away from that place, and try to nurse him back to health. We thought that if he recovered, we'd put him in a nice pasture and let him live out any remaining days in peace.

We purchased him for $700 (far more than he was worth by any standard other than love) and trailered him down to the stables where Galahad lived.

Both the vet and the farrier paid Leo a visit. The vet wormed him, floated his teeth for the first time in years, and gave me medicine to put on the mange that covered his body. The vet agreed that we'd never be able to ride him again, but thought that he had a chance of recovering enough to live happily in a pasture. He thought that Leo had perhaps two years to live.

The farrier agreed that we'd never ride Leo again. He was shocked at the condition of his feet -- he'd never seen such a bad case of founder before. Leo's soles had dropped below the two shoes that hadn't yet fallen off. It was obvious that each step was painful for him. His hoof walls were so weak, cracked and crumbly that the farrier said it would be best to let him go without shoes for at least a couple of months. He recommended a number of different hoof dressings we could use to help the dryness a bit, but said there was nothing we could do for his dropped and tender soles. He thought we should wait and pray that his hooves would grow enough to hold shoes.

We gave Leo a great big loose box and bedded it with plenty of fresh clean straw. He was turned out in a paddock every day for an hour or so, but he would just stand by the gate looking downcast and depressed. Each day after I finished riding and grooming Galahad, I'd feed Leo some carrots, groom him and apply his mange medicine. In a few days, he started to look happier (but no healthier) and it was obvious that he enjoyed the attention.

After a couple of weeks, I remembered reading an article in Equus magazine about a study that had been done in England about the effects of biotin on foundered horses. The study had proved that in many cases, dished hooves, dropped soles, and weak, cracked and crumbling hoof walls could be cured or improved by feeding 15mg of biotin a day. In vain, we searched for a biotin supplement, but found none. Finally, we went to the health food store and bought the largest jar of biotin tablets we could find. I knew there was no way I could make Leo swallow a few dozen pills a day, so each day I crushed them with a mortar and pestle, mixed it with oats (to cover the bitter taste of the carrier) and sprinkled it over the top of Leo's feed.

At first, everyone at the barn thought I was crazy, but then again, they already thought I was crazy for believing that Leo could be saved. But they quickly changed their minds. In three weeks, his hooves showed so much improvement, he was able to walk more comfortably. Since biotin is a water-soluble vitamin and the risk of overdose was virtually non-existent, I upped his dosage to 30mg a day.

Not only was crushing dozens of pills a day time-consuming, it was also very expensive. The health food storeowner joked that I was his best customer. My father and I contacted a number of large vitamin manufacturers and finally purchased 5kg of pure powdered human-grade biotin (enough to feed 15mg a day to all the horses in the barn for 6 months!). It was so pure, it was impossible to measure a 30mg dose or to mix it with his feed and still be sure that Leo got to eat it. We tried mixing it in various percentages with a number of different carriers, and finally found that ground rice hulls worked best -- the texture mixed well with the powdered biotin, it keeps well, it's natural, contains nothing harmful, and actually contains a little biotin. The final tester of our mixture was Leo. (Despite his condition, he was a finicky eater.) He thought it was so tasty, he would eat it right from my hand! Certainly an improvement over the bitter crushed pills!

Six short weeks after he first staggered into the barn, Leo was wearing shoes again (the farrier was dumbstruck) and could occasionally be seen frisking around in the paddock. His mange was gone and his coat started to shine. Dapples that we didn't know existed started to appear. Leo wasn't exactly the picture of health, but he looked a lot better. Two months after that, Leo bore no resemblance to the pitiful animal that had first stumbled off the trailer. He had a bright gleam in his eyes. He nickered when I walked into the barn with his carrots, and was running and bucking in the paddock like a colt! His ribs weren't showing any more, and hips weren't sticking out so far. He got his second set of shoes. The farrier and vet both remarked that they had never seen anything like it; the barn owner and the other horse owners were astounded! Many people started asking us to mix this biotin supplement for them, and so Gen-A-Horse was created and Nickers International was formed.

Right after Leo got his second set of shoes, it occurred to me that maybe it would be okay to ride Leo every so often. The farrier and the vet couldn't see any reason why not. What a handful he had become! No longer was Leo the docile old gentleman we knew at the hack barn -- he was full of spirit. My father started riding him, and found that it was best to let him spend a half hour "getting the bucks out" before getting on.

We were both so pleased -- now we were finally able to go riding together. We called the people with the pasture and told them that we wouldn't be bringing Leo there anytime soon.

Late that summer, my father entered Leo in a hunter class at a small local show. It was pretty informal, and strictly just- for-fun, so we didn't bother with braids or show sheen, just a quick bath and thorough brushing. Old friends didn't recognize Leo and asked when we got the beautiful quarter horse! They wanted to know what we put on his coat to make it so shiny and we speculated that it had something to do with the Gen-A-Horse.

By that time, I had started feeding Gen-A-Horse to Galahad. He already had great hooves, but I figured it every little bit helps -- especially for a horse in such heavy training. It was soon obvious that his coat looked a lot better, too. Later that year, we sponsored more research, and Gen-A-Coat was born.

My father and Leo formed a very strong bond. It was obvious that my father got along much better with Leo than I did, and I was happy to let him assume full care of Leo -- balancing the care and exercise of two horses with my teaching schedule (my instructor had recently turned a number of his beginner students over to me) and school had become a little tiring! My father had more time to devote to Leo. He rode him several times a week and really pampered him. He began taking all his lessons on Leo, and eventually got the okay from the vet and the farrier to let him do a little jumping! These two distinguished gentlemen were the picture of elegance both on the local trails and at the small shows.

Two years later, one of my students was preparing to ride in her first horse trial. But a week before the event, her horse injured herself while turned out, and the vet said she would have to spend a month recovering before being ridden. I considered letting my student ride Galahad, but she was new to eventing, and Galahad was notoriously uncooperative in the dressage ring, and a bit too much of a handful on the cross-country. Suddenly it occurred to me that despite his lack of dressage training, Leo would be a perfect substitute. After all, my student was entered in pre-training level -- the dressage was not too demanding and well within Leo's capabilities.

I cautioned my student not to get her hopes up about winning a ribbon. After all, it was her first event and Leo's first event, and she'd only ridden Leo twice before. I'm not sure who deserved more credit for the second place ribbon they took, but they certainly deserved it! We knew that Leo didn't have much of a future as an event horse -- we'd decided to limit his jumping in quantity and height, and my father preferred to be mainly a pleasure rider. But they certainly presented a beautiful picture at Devon when he was invited to be an outrider. Leo certainly didn't know his limitations -- he thought he should follow the advanced horses over the big oxer he was posted by. In 1990, when he was 18, we lost Leo to a heart attack. The vet speculated that he had suffered irrecoverable damage from not being wormed regularly for so many years at the hack barn. We were sad to lose him, but comforted in the knowledge that he was happy, healthy and well cared-for in his last six years. We imagine that in horse heaven, he's instructing the other horses on the finer points of running, playing, and carrot-eating. This isn't an ad -- everything in the story is true. Would Leo have lived six years without Gen-A-Horse? Maybe. Would he have been as happy? I don't think so. Would we have been able to ride him? I'm sure we wouldn't have. Perhaps Leo's big heart, and all the love we gave him helped. I know that there is no miracle cure. But if you love your horse, he deserves the best. Give him Gen-A-Horse and tell him Leo's story.