By Pat Foster-Turley
June 23, 2022
Like many girls, I grew up enamored with horses. I read all the Black Stallion books, saw all the My Friend Flika television shows, and rented a horse to ride whenever I could talk my parents into it. But, alas, I lived in a New Jersey suburb of New York City and barely saw a living horse. One glorious summer, though, when I was in my teens I spend days on end riding horses in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, while my engineer father was starting up a factory in Amarillo. I have always loved horses.
And now as my birthdays mount up I have started a new ritual with my husband Bucko. For my birthday he has to take me somewhere I can feed carrots to horses. After a recent harrowing long horse ride in Costa Rica I’m hesitant to ride, but hey, if you find the right place, anyone can feed a horse and pet them, and these days that’s plenty enough for me.
This year we visited the Retirement Home for Horses, Mill Creek Farm (https://millcreekfarm.org/) outside of Gainesville on their Saturday open visit for this special treat. The “admission” to this Saturday event is two carrots. But people bring so much more. Some visitors came laden with shopping carts full of carrots. We didn’t go this far, but did have about 20 pounds of carrots and a bag of apples with us for the occasion. The first stop on entering the gate is the apple coring station. The farm has more than 140 horses, all roaming in large pastures with a few compatible pasture mates. Some of these oldsters have lost their teeth due to age and illnesses and they can’t eat carrots. But boy do they love apple slices, which we prepared for them at the coring station.
All the horses at Mill Creek Farm come with interesting, sometimes sad, backstories. To be placed at this wonderful retirement farm, they are either retired working horses from police, military, parks or even circuses. Or, sadly, they were the victims of severe abuse and rescued by humane societies. Some were even PMU (pregnant mare urine) horses, once confined in tiny stalls with their urine constantly collected to make the drug Premarin used by menopausal women. At the farm we saw some of these horses that were abused that still do not allow any human contact—they never formed a good bond with a human and by this time never will.
But they were the exception. Most of the horses here were retired from active duty and love the attention of humans. Here they are fed high quality food and any specialized veterinary care that is needed, they roam free in large pastures, and are individually groomed and cared for each week by a large team of volunteers. But despite this attention I’m sure they look forward to Saturdays as much as the visitors do.
So, for a couple of hours Bucko and I roamed freely along the roads past the pastures, where the horses ponied up to the railings to beg for carrots. We took special care to look for those with yellow collars—these horses with bad (or no) teeth can only be fed apples and bananas. The rest gobbled down all the carrots we could hand out. One mare, a zorse (zebra/horse hybrid) followed me all along its pasture fence. Other horses patiently lined up along their fences awaiting treat-bearing visitors.
There are more than equines at Mill Creek Farm. The place included many acres of natural habitat in addition to the pastures and flowers were in bloom in the woods. But what were these flowers? Ever curious I soon found Mary Gregory, the 90 plus year old founder of the farm, who was driving a golf cart with her dachshund companion Minnie. Before long I was driving in the cart with them to Mary’s patch of rain lilies that originated from one lily given to her as a gift decades ago, that she has propagated and scattered seeds throughout the farm. Mary dug up a bulb for me, and gave me a bunch of seeds and now these are scattered in my own yard, as memories of my fun time with the horses.
I encourage anyone who likes horses to look up the Retirement Home for Horses online, and to visit them on a Saturday, if you can. It is an experience rivaled by none–at least for a horse-loving old gal like me!
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]