Mill Creek Farm reopens for the public this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. after a 16-month closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The price of admission is the food you bring for Red, Breeze and the 134 other rescue horses―plus one zorse (a horse-zebra hybrid) named Tiger and three donkeys―who live on the 335-acre horse retirement home in Alachua.
Visitors can walk along paths while feeding and petting the retirees at around 44 different fenced pastures, such as Don Alonso’s Pasture and Pepper’s Paddock.
“We’re trying to make sure everything’s looking nice for the public but also safe for the public,” said Paul Gregory, who took over the farm after his father died in 2014.
Mill Creek Farm started in 1984 as a retirement home for horses. The founders, Peter and Mary Gregory, retired from the hotel business to start the farm, accepting only horses rescued by animal groups or retired from police forces around the United States.
The non-profit farm opened to the public once a week.
“An hour before we’d open, every Saturday, the horses would start migrating their way over to the fenceline,” Gregory said. “Like they knew what was happening.”
He said the public is excited to return, with the farm receiving around 50 inquiries a week. A big question is what the horses will think of the reopening after a 16-month hiatus.
“It’ll be interesting to see on Saturday how it all goes,” Gregory said. “Especially the new guys, ‘cause the new guys are going to be like, ‘Woah! What’s all this?’”
The farm closed to the public in March 2020. Since then, 18 new retirees have moved in, but the pandemic caused other changes as well.
Volunteer staff dropped from about 60 people per week to 15, as senior workers stayed home to care for their health and university students left after their schools closed.
“We still had an awesome team that pulled together to ensure that every week every horse still got groomed,” Gregory said. “It just took longer, but we were still able to get it together.”
Some supplies became hard to find, like certain cleaning products and medication, while others got delayed at times. And lumber became very expensive in the last few months. But, Gregory said the farm mostly had what it needed without too much trouble.
As they began ramping up to reopen, Tropical Storm Elsa came through the area, washing out some paths.
Gregory and the Mill Creek team created a new path for golf cart and visitor use. Building the new path meant cutting through some pastures and a whole lot of new fencing.
The farm provides around-the-clock work for volunteers, from fixing fences and cutting grass to grooming horses and painting.
Each horse has a biography attached to the fence of its enclosure. The farm uses plastic edge protectors to keep the bios in place, and Gregory said he had friends buying and bringing the protectors to him from Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville.
Many of the horses are rescued from South Florida, where their owners dump them in or near the Everglades, while others come from circuses. The farm also accepts horses who served as mounts for police and have nowhere to go after retiring from the force.
Two new Tennessee Walkers, Red and Chaz, were rescued after being used as part of a show organization that competes by forcing horses to step with artificially high steps, caused by illegally “soring” the horse’s legs.
Maintaining the farm takes more than volunteers. At nearly $4,000 annually per horse, care for the animals is expensive. The total operating cost of the farm is about $400,000 per year.
Donors from all over give one-time or monthly gifts to keep the farm running. People can sponsor a horse for $50 a month.
Gregory said he’s excited for the reopening, especially seeing the children fearlessly feeding horses 10 times their size.
“Seeing the kids out here—they’re like the next generation,” Gregory said. “So those are the ones that I really love seeing the farm and learning about horses and learning that just because a horse gets old doesn’t mean you get rid of it.”