By DeDee McGehee -- The old Ford truck turned down the drive. It was like the ones you might see on market days with a wooden rack built into the bed. Instead of being full of wide-eyed cattle, there stood a solitary spotted mare so huge she had to bend down to peek out from under a low hanging roof. The truck pulled up in front of the barn and a big man climbed out wearing only a waffled long john shirt and worn overalls. "Howdy, ma'am," he softly spoke as he extended his huge hand. Ma'am? How could he even guess at my sex, as I resembled that Michelin tire guy, wearing every piece of clothing I owned? It was February and frigid, but it didn't seem to bother him. I decided he must be the John Wayne of the mountains.

The mare on the back of the truck began to fidget and I asked John if he needed to pull around to the ramp to make it easier to unload her. "Don't need it. Come on, Ruby," he said as he flung open the gate at the rear of the truck. Ruby leapt out onto the icy blacktop. From inside the barn came a high-pitched whinny, to which Ruby pricked her ears and nickered, dragging John inside. He slid open a stall door where a wobbly foal awaited. Her elderly mother had hemorrhaged and died the night before and little Julie was frightened, cold, and starving. John led Ruby into the stall, pushing the foal toward her bag where Julie began to suckle noisily. Ruby, curious, turned to sniff at her bottom.

"This is a good mare; you won't even need to tie her," John spoke as he cut her loose. "Please be careful," I squeaked. "This is a valuable foal." I'm sure John wondered what kind of a nut I must be, but this was the best-bred foal I had ever raised and I was nervous. I may be a veterinarian, but I didn't have a lot of firsthand experience with nurse mares. I had been around a few of them, but I never actually had to deal with the bonding process itself. Vets are like that, you know. We do a lot of prescribing and such, but rarely hang around to do all those treatments.

John smiled patiently at me while I struggled to breathe. I knew this mare was going to kill my foal. How could he just turn her loose like that? What about all those stories of wicked mares: hobbled, blindfolded, tranquilized? Was John nuts? Apparently not; Ruby never pinned an ear or threatened to harm her new child. She raised my first stakes horse as her very own.

So was the beginning of a long respect for and relationship with the John Wayne of the mountains. We have many older mares on the farm and probably use nurse mares more than most. Many have passed through here since, but none quite as special as Ruby. I've even had Ruby herself back a time or two. We always ask for her, and if she is not available, I get a rundown on how she is and what lucky farm has her that year.

I feel very strong bonds to these nurse mares because I was raised by one. Not like the boy who was raised by wolves, but like children everywhere who are lucky enough to be adopted into a family that loves and wants them. I had my own Ruby as a mother. She took me in and never saw me as any different from her own. I never knew any difference either. My birth mother didn't die in childbirth, she wasn't too old to raise me, and she did not lack sufficient milk to feed me. It was a different time and single motherhood was frowned upon. She did what was best for me. I wonder about the instincts of those old mares we take foals from and if they know in their hearts it is the best thing for their children. Given their obvious distress and grief, I somehow doubt it. Hopefully, my own birth mother knew there was a Ruby waiting just for me. We should all be so lucky. Thank you, Ruby.

Veterinarian DEDE McGEHEE is the owner of Heaven Trees Farm near Lexington.

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