A mission rooted in open hearts lies where the rolling hills meet the live oak trees of North Florida. Second chances at life exist for unwanted and neglected horses because of a shared dream between two lovers.
The Retirement Home for Horses at Mill Creek Farm is home to more than 130 elderly horses, some seized by law enforcement agencies and others rescued by SPCA or humane societies. The retirement home also accepts retired horses from government services like police patrol or state and federal parks. The only exception is privately owned horses. The farm gives the horses a forever home and a lifetime of care.
Though dreams of a better life have come true for the horses, Peter and Mary Gregory’s lifelong dream became a reality when they founded the retirement home. Their story takes place decades ago when they were both students at the University of London.
“We realized we were perfect for one another, and we got married,” 90-year-old Mary Gregory said. “The first day we had met, we were talking, realizing that we had both loved animals.”
After visiting a farm in England devoted to giving horses a two-week break from their cart and carriage jobs in the streets of London, they made a vow to each other.
“If we were to ever make enough money, we would do something just like that,” Mary Gregory said.
More than 30 years later, they did.
After retiring from the hotel industry and spending years traveling the world, the married couple purchased 140 acres of land in Alachua. Since then, it has expanded into 335 acres with the aid of volunteers, sponsors and donations.
“This will be here beyond me and is not allowed to be sold,” Mary Gregory said.
To protect the land, a perpetual conservation easement prevents the property from being developed.
“I have worked for rescue organizations before and when the owners dies so does the organization,” volunteer Karen Cody said. “It is so important to all these horses that they have a forever place to live and retire here. They earned it. I just love that this will be here forever.”
When Peter and Mary Gregory bought the land there were no trees. Now, they have planted 125 live oak trees throughout the land and do not allow them to be cut.
“When I’m dead, they’ll be as tall as I am,” Mary Gregory said, laughing. “I’m not dead yet and look at the size of them.”
The trees now tower over the land and her 5-foot-4 frame. Over 39 years, more than 400 additional trees were planted, filling up the memorial park known as the Field of Dreams and overflowing onto the farm. Each tree offers shade and safety for wildlife.
“What happens here is after every horse passes away, we plant an oak tree on the farm somewhere in their memory,” said Paul Gregory, the 58-year-old son of Mary and Peter Gregory and the director of the farm.
The legacy of the retirement home lies in the hands of Paul Gregory as his father passed away in 2014. Peter Gregory’s ashes were scattered in the Field of Dreams, his final resting place among the animals they lost. At the corner of the farm sits his memorial in a field with live oak trees, wildflowers, azaleas and flowering trees.
“The farm means something bigger than myself,” Paul Gregory said. “It is about the next generation.”
The retirement home brings people of all different backgrounds together in pursuit of their love for horses. They hope the retirement home will allow people to enjoy horses of all backgrounds, such as a zorse, a mixture of zebra and horse.
“We don’t see him as an attraction,” volunteer Scott Cody said. “We see him as equal to all the other horses.”
Every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m, the farm is open to the public. The experience is free of charge. However, it is requested to bring two carrots upon arrival for the hungry horses. This opportunity works as an educational service for those wanting to know more about horses and the responsibility of owning one.
Volunteer Jane Hansen has a special connection with the horses and even sponsored a horse named Rex.
“He is just so sweet and has these kind eyes,” she said.
Rex was found walking down the middle of the road in Lake County, Florida, by the police department. By contacting local rescue, they were able to find his owners. However, they did not want him. “There’s a lot of stories like that here,” Hansen said, “but we try to concentrate on when they come here giving them a future.”
To never be ridden or worked again is the promise each horse will get after arrival at the retirement home. They will roam freely and live out the rest of their life in serenity in the arms of selfless volunteers and in the fields of the sunshine state.
“Everyone deserves a fair chance,” Paul Gregory said.