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MOUNT VERNON — Multiple tall, powerful Thoroughbreds gallop by at top speed, thundering around the track with the aim to win the prestigious Kentucky Derby.
These horses are pampered, well-fed, with large, clean stalls to live in and regular, rigorous exercise routines to ensure they stay in shape. But what happens to them once they’ve been pushed to the limit, once they’re old and broken down and their racing career is over?
Some of those horses live out the rest of their lives in luxury, but not all are so lucky. Some are broken down, lame, consigned to a life of pain, cast off from their once-pampered world when they aren’t able to win anymore.
And a few fortunate horses spend their retirement with Mount Vernon High School sophomore Reilly Gross.
For the past two years, Gross has volunteered and worked at Unbridled Spirits in Lisbon. Gross always has loved horses. When she was younger, she had an Appaloosa horse, but her family couldn’t keep it. Her passion for horses didn’t have an outlet for years, until she met Tina Norris, owner of Unbridled Spirits, at the Uptown Arts Festival where Norris had a booth. She and Norris hit it off and Gross filled out a volunteer form. She has been volunteering regularly ever since.
Unbridled Spirits is a nonprofit thoroughbred retirement ranch, for off-the-track Thoroughbreds from around the country that no longer can race. In addition to the Thoroughbreds, the ranch also has a few Quarter Horses, Standardbreds, and an Appaloosa living on it. Some of the thoroughbreds are rescued from the kill pens, from going to slaughter, and most come straight off the racetrack. Many of the horses that end up at Unbridled Spirits have health issues that prevent them from being raced or ridden.
Gross helps out with many different tasks on the ranch, including grooming horses, feeding and watering them, exercising them, cleaning stalls and changing bandages.
Gross said her favorite part of volunteering there is “spending as much time as possible with the horses, especially Navy, my horse.” Navy is a 20-year-old Quarter Horse, and was a gift to Gross on her one-year anniversary of volunteering at Unbridled Spirits.
When Navy first arrived at the ranch, his arthritis was so bad he nearly fell out of the horse trailer. Norris wasn’t even sure Navy was going to make it at first. However, Gross began working with him, doing things to help his arthritis, such as walking him around to stretch his legs and putting liniment on his sore joints.
“We just formed a connection,” she said. “I worked with him and helped him and got him from barely walking to now galloping. Knowing I did that just feels awesome. He is now a pasture horse with a good life.”
Gross goes to the ranch as often as she can.
“I come out pretty much every day, but sometimes I have school activities like marching band, so right now I’m only coming out a few times a week,” Gross said. “I spend about six hours here on days I come out.”
The ranch has about 27 horses living on it, so there always is plenty of work to be done.
“Horses are my passion,” she said. “I love being around them — whenever I have the chance to be out here, I want to be out here. I learn so much from coming here.”
Gross isn’t sure what her future holds, but she knows it will involve horses.