Mrs. Velma Johnston typed letters, filed carbon copies, and answered the phone at the insurance office where she worked as a secretary. She dressed conservatively, smiled often, and spoke kindly. She sat with good posture, as good as she was able, as long as she could.
Her husband Charlie drove her to work each day through the dun-colored hills of Virginia City, Nevada. From her window, she could see some of the few wild horses that still ran free.
One day in 1950, Velma looked ahead at a truck they followed through the hills. When they grew close, Velma gasped. Blood ran from truck and dripped on the road. Wild horses had been gathered violently and crammed in the bed. Mares and studs had trampled a yearling under their hooves. The truck turned, and headed out of town toward a cannery, where wild horses were bought for a few cents a pound and killed for pet food.
Velma couldn’t breathe. When she got home that day, she began to make phone calls. She began to ask questions. She found out the grisly truth about the mustangs and what would happen to them next. She resolved to put an end to the slaughter, however she could. She would fight for the dignity of wild horses from that day, for the rest of her life, from her county seat, to the Nevada state Capitol, then finally, to Washington, D.C.
This is the story of how Velma Bronn Johnston became Wild Horse Annie.
* * *
Mustengos once roamed the high plains in the millions, in herds of a few dozen, or as few as a handful, a manada. They ate native grass, trampled their native dun-colored hills. They ran free.
Stallions led harems of mares until they lost control. Young horses challenged them when they grew old. They fought bitterly with hooves and teeth until one gave up, or died.
Smaller than draft horses and Percherons, thicker than Arabians, the scrappy survivors had descended from domesticated horses left behind by Spanish colonial armies and American colonial settlers. They doubled and trebled until their herds painted swaths across the West in a rainbow of earth colors, gray and brown, spotted and buckskin.
In the 1800s they swarmed across lightly populated territories, but as those plains were settled and planted, new herds of livestock displaced the horses. Cattle needed the grasslands to thrive and to feed settlers. They took the place of the mustangs, and ranchers took the mustangs in turn.
The wild horses of a romantically rendered, bygone era were broken and put to work by miners, homesteaders, sharecroppers, and dairy farmers. They were free for the taking. They were good at work. The mustangs had lived in hard scrubland and could pick their way through rough terrain. They could travel for miles with little or no water. They could survive on little food. They were smart enough to anticipate cattle movements, and cowboys could count on them to help with the lonesome, tiring work of roundups.
A population of more than 2 million wild horses fell to 20,000 before World War II. Those left behind retreated to the most remote stretches of the Nevada desert. They were underfed, scrawny. They were misfits.
* * *
Joseph Bronn nearly starved on the long journey his family made from Nebraska to California in a covered wagon. The family ran out of food when they reached the Nevada desert. Bronn’s father killed a mare that had just given birth, and gave its milk to his son.
Bronn thrived, and grew up to ranch family land in California. He and his wife raised a family on it. They welcomed Velma on March 5, 1912, then three more children.
The family lived an idyllic farm life, Velma later recalled, but her childhood ended cruelly when she contracted polio in 1923. The family rushed her to San Francisco in the hope of a cure. The doctors wrapped her in a cast from her waist over the top of her head, and left her in it for six months. She broke out in tears when doctors cut the cast away. Her head had grown distorted. Her chin had receded. Her jaw muscles had pulled to the right. Her right eye had risen higher than the left.
She came home to a completely different body, and to a completely changed life. While gone, her brother died of polio, and her father had moved the family from California to a Nevada ranch. To ease her recovery, her father gave her a horse, which she named Hobo.
When Velma went to school, children teased her because of her looks. She steeled herself and turned their insults into an opportunity. She asked them to play, and her classmates said yes. People stared, and she knew how she looked to them, but she always smiled—and they smiled back.
Velma grew up, and left home, for a while. She married a strapping Native American man, Charlie Johnston. At 6-feet-4 and 225 pounds, he was her opposite. He bore a strong resemblance to John Wayne. He helped her run the Lazy Heart Ranch that belonged to her parents. Soon the young couple bought the ranch and renamed it: the Double Lazy Heart Ranch.
Though they had none of their own, the Johnstons took in children and immersed them the beauty of nature. They taught them how to ride, while Velma chain-smoked menthol cigarettes, and smiled her wide, crooked, welcoming smile.
* * *
A mustang can survive on little food and little water, but it cannot survive the worst of men.
Ranchers broke mustangs and put them to work, but even then, the horses cost money. Farm machinery could do more work and could do it more cheaply. The horses had been trusted allies but they became a nuisance.
In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act opened up Bureau of Land Management lands to livestock grazing. For pennies, ranchers could let their livestock roam free on public land. Cattle and horse now competed for the same food. Ranchers complained the horses killed grasses while they rooted for winter food. They broke fences. When they stampeded, they spooked cattle and undid a long day of roundups.
The mutts of the horse world, mustangs weren’t wild animals, not by the letter of the law. They were feral, reverted from those domesticated horses when they were abandoned. Other species fell under protective custody; the horses were left vulnerable.
First, ranchers tried to starve the horses. They fenced off thousands of miles of range, and prevented the mustangs from reaching water and food. Then they began to kill them. They rustled them in cruel jags. They chased the horses into canyons and dry lake beds. Horses broke legs as they scrambled. Cowboys lassoed them and tied them to truck tires to exhaust them. They bound their legs and dragged them on trucks, and stripped their hides in haste.
The colts suffered the worst. Separated from their mares, often the colts were crushed in the stampede as ranchers fired at them from trucks and airplanes. Usually, the colts were simply abandoned. They were small, and wouldn’t bring more than a few cents at slaughter.
The cowboys sold the horses to canneries, where meat fetched up to 10 cents a pound. In one fell swoop, the ranchers eliminated a nuisance horse, gave cattle more food, and took home $50. Some ranchers could gather a hundred horses or more a day.
Even cowboys who profited from the violent trade expressed remorse.
“I know it’s a sing and a shame for anybody who likes horses to run them mustangs,” one Nevada hunter told Newsweek magazine in 1963. “A dude woman once said to me why didn’t I get an honest job stealing cattle, but somebody’s going to get that money, and it might as well be me.”
More dead than alive, Velma said as she recoiled, when she described the bleeding horses she saw that day in 1950. They were victims, she said, of unbelievably brutal treatment. Some of the horses in the back of the truck had stayed on their legs only because they were crammed in so tightly. One horse’s eyes had been shot out.
Their story became her stump speech as she campaigned for local, then state, then federal protection of wild horses and burros.
In June 1952 she learned the BLM had given permission to pilots to drive horses off a range south of her Double Lazy Heart Ranch. She organized a protest at a commissioner meeting of Storey County. She and others stood up against a sheep operator, a rendering works official, and BLM personnel. She questioned them, refuted their arguments, took them on in heated exchange—and won. Storey County became the first county in Nevada to outlaw roundups of mustangs and burros by airplanes and helicopters.
The polite secretary had become an activist. From that moment, the fate of the mustang fell into her hands.
* * *
Velma Johnston stood before Congress in 1959. In the days before she entered the stately committee room, men had greeted her and wished her luck. Senators and congressmen, cabbies and elevator operators, newsboys, pageboys, and clerks.
The papers called her Mrs., and called her slender and demure. They put her nickname, Wild Horse Annie, in quotes. They underestimated her.
In the nine years since she first saw wild horses on the way to slaughter, she had turned their plight into a cause and had become their voice. With typewriter and ribbon, she first papered the Nevada papers and polled Nevada politicians. She contacted every member of the state legislature and explained how horses were treated when they were captured. She contacted riding groups, humane organizations, citizens, and friends.
She demanded a statewide protection bill. One law man snorted at her efforts and catcalled her “Wild Horse Annie.” The nickname stuck.
In 1955, the Nevada Legislature made it illegal to kill, harass, or molest any animal from aircraft, some game animals excepted. The crime could end in a $500 fine or six months in jail. The bill didn’t prevent acts on federal lands, though, and since most of Nevada fell under federal control, Johnston turned her sights to Washington. She began a kitchen campaign: She and Charlie wrote letters at home, and asked schools to get students to write to Congress, to defeat the “mustangers.”
Millions read her story, and heard her message in Reader’s Digest, and in The Denver Post.
“We are trying to prevent another mass extermination,” she told the paper, in sharp words that added to the stampede of mail. “These animals are being brutally annihilated. Those that are left must be protected before it is too late.”
By the late 1950s, most Western states had outlawed mustang hunting on state lands. Velma had set her sights on Congress. She demanded, and got, meetings with Nevada Rep. Walter Baring and Sen. Howard Cannon, an old mustang breaker.
On Monday, July 27, 1959, she made her way to Washington D.C. for a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee meeting on whether Congress should limit mechanized pursuit on public lands took place.
In two hours of testimony, Velma told the subcommittee how the horses were roped, injured, abused, slaughtered. How she had documented it all with a camera while her husband watched nearby with a loaded gun as four men tried to rope a herd into a truck for slaughter.
“I turned the camera toward the four men preparing to load the animals, and they piled into their car as though I had pointed a machine gun at them,” she testified. “Heading their vehicle straight toward our automobile, they veered off just inches from our bumper when they were faced by my husband armed with a .38…these men meant business, and so did I.”
She told the subcommittee of fiercely proud and beautiful animals that had been decimated, almost driven from the face of the earth. Public land shouldn’t be the province of wealthy, well-connected ranchers, she said. It belonged to all Americans.
When she told the committee how the mustang stood for America, they stood in silent deference.
”The mustang doesn’t belong just to Nevada. He is a symbol of freedom for all. He is our American heritage, as meaningful to us as the battlefield at Yorktown or the white church at Lexington. Even more so, because he is a living symbol.”
* * *
Velma took on mustangers in Washington, and won. On Sept. 8, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed HR 2725. It prohibited motorized pursuit of wild horses and burros, and pollution of water holes on public land. An exception carved out a place for humane kills, when the mustang population grew too large.
That week, newspaper wires across the country spread the legend of Wild Horse Annie. Her face appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Herald, in small-town papers in desert California and Idaho, and in the industrial heartland, in the Detroit News.
Her legend grew. As it did, Velma Johnston became aware of how she appeared in public. The game show “To Tell The Truth” invited her as a guest and asked for a photo. She sent one. The show canceled her.
At one point Annie tried to get a photo she would like. The children knew her actions as beautiful, but she wanted one, just one photo, that softened her cheeks, set her eyes evenly, and showed more than the hint of chin her cruel polio cast had left behind. She wrote a photographer that she wanted to be seen as beautiful to more people than just her husband Charlie, who had died of emphysema as Velma began to realize her work might never be done.
Wild Horse Annie had won a round, but it would be difficult to defend the 1959 law. Wild horse captures ground to a halt for a while, until ranchers found ways to get around the law. They mingled their horses with wild horses, and claimed them all. They set traps that drew in wild horses under the cover of night. The exception left in the first federal law widened to a loophole.
By the mid-1960s, Velma shifted her campaign to a battle for federal protection for wild horses and burros that would forbid any harm. Though Charlie no longer sat across from her at the kitchen table, she never stopped writing letters. She relied on vigilant citizens to report mustangers across America: a DuPont in Delaware, a sharecropper in Alabama.
She implored thousands more schoolchildren to write their representatives in Washington. In the latter part of the decade, Congress received nearly as many messages in favor of wild horses as they did letters in protest of the Vietnam War.
By the turn of the decade, Velma had won again, this time with The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which called the animals “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” The new federal statute protected the horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment, and slaughter.
Velma’s recognition came in the form of a letter from President Richard Nixon, dated Nov. 30, 1971: “In these days when we are all concerned with preserving and restoring our natural environment,” Nixon wrote, “it is especially encouraging to note your dedication to saving these splendid wild animals so that future generations of Americans may have the pleasure of seeing them roaming free in their natural habitat.”
* * *
Mustangs still lived a life in limbo, even with federal protection, on ranges established to protect them across the high plains and Rockies. Their freedom was bounded but their numbers began to grow, as Velma thought they would, as hostile ranchers knew they would.
In 1974, she received a warning from an Idaho vigilante group. She took the threat lightly and hung it on of wall of mementos.
She retired as a secretary, and put those skills to work with a new group she founded: Wild Horse Organized Assistance, or WHOA. She served as president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros. But she no longer had close contact with the horses themselves. She’d become allergic, and broke out in hives around them.
She had lived to understand the meaning of the dark codicil embedded in the wild horse protection act: The Secretary shall cause additional excess wild free roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible. At some point, the horse and burro population would grow so large, the herds would have to be culled.
Velma died from cancer on June 27, 1977.
More than any other person, Velma made the mustang resonate with readers of the Sunday paper, with congressmen on the way home to their districts, with children in writing class in primary school. It’s unimaginable that the story of the mustang did not resonate with the designers and marketers of a new car specifically aimed at women, at secretaries like Velma Bronn Johnston. Or with the people they polled and asked to choose from a list of names for the new car: Torino, Allegro, Cougar. Mustang.
Of course they chose Mustang. They were grown-ups by then, but they were still boys and girls raised on the legend of Wild Horse Annie. Poems and odes weren’t being written about cougars, after all.
Velma Bronn Johnston had seen the the spirit of a bygone era dying in the back of a truck, and rescued it. She revived the mythology of a Wild West that was no longer so wild. Wild Horse Annie wrote her own legend—a legend that happens to be true.
Please keep calling U. S. Senators on the Conference Committee and urge them to continue standing up for wild horses and burros and opposing slaughter. Click here for suggested talking points and a list of phone numbers.
Please click here to send a letter to your members of Congress urging them to oppose the Bureau of Land Management sale policy, which allows any buyer to purchase up to 24 wild horses with no waiting period, no oversight and no questions asked.
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