On a 335-acre farm, a mother and her son are outnumbered by their 148 horses and four donkeys.
But Mary Gregory will say the one who runs it all is the dachshund, Minnie.
With Minnie by her side, she directs the farm 30 years after chasing a dream with her late husband Peter. The couple moved to the city of Alachua from South Florida in 1984 to open Retirement Home for Horses Inc. on Mill Creek Farm, a home for abandoned, abused and retired working horses.
Mary Gregory and her son Paul call the farm a “labor of love.”
In 2014, after his father’s death, Paul Gregory came to the farm to help his mother care for the animals. What started as a two week visit quickly turned into a lifetime commitment. He left his successful real estate business career behind in Ft. Lauderdale, moved onto the farm and became the executive director of operations.
“I felt very proud taking this over,” Paul Gregory said. “Our motto here is ‘It takes a team to maintain this dream.”
But, the dream also comes with nonstop work.
Paul Gregory and a team of 20 to 30 volunteers spend every day grooming and feeding horses, moving and fixing fences and cleaning and filling buckets.
“If you enjoy what you’re doing, you never work a day in your life,” Paul Gregory said.
The farm costs about $400,000 a year to maintain and relies entirely on public donations and volunteer help. On Saturdays, the farm is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Admission? Just two carrots as treats for the horses, a tradition Peter Gregory started more than 30 years ago.
Children ran around and laughed gleefully as horses munched carrots from their hands. At the front, Nora Denslow, a volunteer and one of about 150 sponsors, welcomed them with a warm smile.
Trails are all around the farm for families, volunteers and sponsors to walk through and look at the horses and its namesake creek that runs through it.
Denslow first met the Gregorys in 1992 while trying to find a rescue home for her pig, Rudy. She’s been an active volunteer since.
When a horse arrives, Denslow said the farm assesses the horse’s temperament for a couple days to find which of the 44 pastures would be most compatible.
Once a horse is in a pasture, it will stay there unless there’s a special circumstance or the horses have not adapted well. This is done to not break up the herd, Denslow said.
Visitors can sponsor a horse, which costs $600 a year and helps fund the farm. Sponsors also receive a certificate, updates and photos of their horse, she said.
Cynthia Lucia, a volunteer who has been coming to Mill Creek Farm for 11 years, sponsors two horses: Rusty and Traveler.
She drove a golf cart loaded with bags of apples, bananas and carrots to find Rusty and Traveler in their pasture behind a wooden fence and hand fed them their favorite treats.
“This place is absolutely wonderful,” Lucia said. “It’s so much better than having a horse of your own. Here, there’s over 100 horses and you can be friends with them all.”
Mary and Peter Gregory moved from England to the Bahamas 60 years ago. From there, they went to Jamaica, then South Florida, finally retiring in Alachua, she said.
Building the Retirement Home for Horses was not easy. In fact, Mary Gregory said many of her friends thought she was crazy for moving to Alachua after a lifetime of living oceanside.
“They said, ‘Oh, you’ll hate it,’” Mary Gregory said. “I never missed the ocean.”
The couple shared a dream of starting a retirement home for horses when they first met at the University of London. They agreed if they ever had enough money, they’d do it.
“I know that people would think I was crazy but it’s what I always wanted to do,” Mary Gregory said.
She never wants to exit the property’s gates. She goes to Publix on every Wednesday and gets all her errands done so that she can stay in her sanctuary for the rest of the week.
“I’ve got everything that I love right in front of me and it doesn’t cost me any money,” she said.
After Mary passes away, the Alachua Conservation Trust ensures the land can never be sold or owned by anyone else, she said. Instead, it will belong to the horses, which can’t be taken off the property.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” Mary said. “I’m so lucky to have been able to do everything that I’ve done and lived in different places, and now we’re here and I love this property.”