Horse News

Wild Horse Annie: Her Legacy at Risk of Extinction

by John L. Smith reprinted from The Mesquite Local News

BLM Bloody Behavior Unchanged in over 60 Years

"Wild Horse Annie"

The battle over the fate of Nevada’s wild horses is one of the longest fights in state history. But until recently I wasn’t aware that a woman they called “Wild Horse Annie” was one of the driving forces behind the movement to have the majestic beasts federally protected. Her real name was Velma Johnston.

Back in 1950, she was a 38-year-old secretary living in Reno.  On the way to work one day, she encountered a truck loaded with care-worn wild horses that were on their way to be slaughtered for pet food.  That experience changed her life, and she began a long fight that eventually resulted in the passage of the first real federal protection for wild horses.

Johnston’s fascinating and highly improbable success story is captured in “Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs” by Canadian authors David Cruise and Allison Griffiths. The horse enthusiast realized early the power of the press in promoting her crusade.

Her good intentions traveled much further through the stories she received from newspapers from throughout the region.  A breakthrough came in 1957, when Reader’s Digest published a laudatory article on Johnston’s battle with the Bureau of Land Management and the ranching lobby.  She would be inundated with mail, some of it addressed to “Wild Horse Annie.” The former secretary who had survived disfiguring childhood polio was suddenly internationally known.

Johnston wasn’t just after publicity.  She pulled raids to free captured wild horses, but she knew the only way to ensure the animals would be protected was through federal intervention. With the Reader’s Digest article in print, she went to Washington and somehow managed to make allies of political enemies Rep. Walter Baring and his Democratic primary opponent, Howard Cannon, who enjoyed breaking mustangs in his spare time.

Johnston herself was a proud Republican, but somehow she managed to pull it off. (I suspect she was successful in part because the politicians also saw the value of appearing to stand up for the beleaguered symbols of the American West.)
One of the great characters in Johnston’s life was award-winning children’s author Marguerite Henry, whose horse adventure books, including “Misty,” captivated a generation of adolescent readers.

Henry provided Johnston with friendship and much-needed support through years that saw her challenge Nevada’s powerful ranching lobby and navigate the halls of Congress on behalf of her beloved animals. All that publicity helped lead to the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

The law was far from ideal, but its passage was an enormous victory that had come against very long odds.

Velma Johnston died on June 27, 1977.  Obituaries from the nation’s largest newspapers praised her for her efforts on behalf of the wild horses.  And the Reno Evening Gazette offered, “Annie’s detractors would have undoubtedly preferred her to be weak and sentimental. What they got from Annie was a tough, hard-headed realist who marshaled her facts, set about her campaign to protect wild horses with steely determination and who had a gun handy for self defense.”

Upon Johnston’s death, her friend Bill Rainey posted a tribute to her in his bookshop window.  It read in part, “This country will never see the likes of her again. I learned how one person in these United States can believe in something and win against impossible odds. You don’t take on powerful cattlemen and win when you’re one woman with little money, but she did.

“To me she was not the woman who talked with presidents, congressmen, authors and painters. She was the very soul of this state.” Thanks to the efforts of Cruise and Griffiths, that soul is once again riding on the sage-scented breeze.

“Striking parallels to just where we are today.  It’s going to take more than simply one contemporary “Wild Horse Annie” to get this wagon back on the track before there aren’t any wild horses horses left to protect as we are quickly running out of time.” ~ R.T.

42 replies »

  1. I’m currently reading her biography. As part of her young letter writing campaign in late 60’s/early 70’s – she has been my hero for a long time.


  2. i’m STUNNED at the number of people in the wild horse & burro movement who have never heard of wild horse annie, much less heard of the organization that she started FIFTY YEARS AGO, the international society for protection of mustangs & burros in south dakota. many people are also unaware that annie was the one who spearheaded the move to create protections for our nation’s mustangs & burros, that culminated in the unanimous vote in congress to pass the wild free roaming horse & burro act of 1971.

    i hope that people will check out the ispmb website, learn more about this organization, & order the book that mr. smith talks about above, wild horse annie & the last of the mustangs, by david druise & allison griffiths. the book gives so much of the history of the struggle to protect our national treasures & helps give a lot of insight to where we are now. read the book, follks, then give it to a friend or donate it to your local library! annie’s story is critical to know how we got to where we are today!


  3. She has ever been one of my contemporary heroes. A woman with heart and balls. Read more about her at your local public library, ours has: Wild Horse Annie and the last of the mustangs : the life of Velma Johnston by David Cruise & Alison Griffiths. It is a treatise on how we all are saints and sinners alike yet can make the world a better place. Thanks for sharing this R.T. Look what her efforts did to ensure a strong mustang presence. It can happen again hopefully with longer lasting and more comprehensive lesgislation and people like her that really care to enforce it.


  4. I, too, am surprised that Wild Horse Annie is not in the minds and hearts of those currently advocating better methods of preserving our wild horses. I just requested this book from the library out here, looking forward to reading it.
    If people missed the link on FB, there was a link to a recent article from the winter issue of the conservation/preservation/ecological disdaining Range Magazine about the Mustangs. In part of that article, they claim the Wild Horse Annie knew the Catoors in 1975 and praised them for their work. Highly doubt that but I am sure if she knew that almost 20 years later, in 1992, Dave Catoor would be indicted and plead guilty to a joint effort to illegally round up mustangs and send them to slaughter, she would not be so praising. Additionally, the article quotes her as saying, about that same time as they claim she was admiring Catoors’ work that the wild horses did not look anything like the majestic horses she wanted to preserve. Wonder why? Could it be that they were still being hunted and harrassed? I can only think that after a few decades of preservation that they are now in a state that she might think them majestic, again, if, indeed, she ever made that statement.
    All our work should be done in her memory and in her honor, and more.


    • i think it’s actually true, to some degree…not quite the degree that the cattoors are promoting it but, believe it or not, the helicopter stampedes are more humane than the way than the way that wild horses & burros were rounded up BEFORE helicopters were being used. i’ve even heard ginger kathrens of TCF say on more than one occasion…..roundups are still not humane by any standards, but given the way that they used to be handled, there are less deaths by helicopter stampede than by being chased by wranglers on horseback.


      • I read the book this summer and I remember that a reference was made to making a movie from this book. I would love to see that happen. I will pass the book on to our local library–good idea!

        A little OT here but BLM Oregon is circulating a final wrapup to the Warm Springs roundup–
        To here them tell it all is wonderful–and there is even upbeat music to complement the photos. I wonder if they were at the same roundup where I read the mare was killed? All of this on my taxpayer dollar–the BLM public relations machine rolls on–


  5. I think what everyone needs to understand is that this is not a 2010 battle. This is a historical battle. And it has been raging for 60 years. Do the research, be inquisitive, nake decisions and know your stand. Wild Horse Annie was an ACTIVIST.


    • I agree Jan, too many worry about what we are “called” and how we are perceived. The fact is given the econmical climate we are in -we donot not have the 100,000 letter writers-the 1000s of school children-nor the media attention Annie had-Each of us has to work harder and do more to be heard. One person has to do the work of 10-and it is not for the faint of heart and those easily discouraged..yes there were some brutal methods employed then, tires tied to WHs, stallions shot and killed, foals left stranded to starve or with broken legs, horses then were driven off of cliffs with airplanes as I remember back before the 71 law was passed-a massive gathering to beat the Law and mangled bodies–and so remind me again of HOW-things have changed????


      • Remember the Massacre on Owyhee-and then tell me how much things have changed..same people-same results-old tricks from old killers


  6. 60 years? I am beyond words. Actually, seeing the words SIXTY YEARS in ugly old black & white makes me speechless. What can we do differently? Is there anything that will make a difference????????


  7. I could not remember the magazine article but knew there had been one. Reader’s Digest, Life, Time and Look. The Saturday Evening Post. But we got RD and because of the article I wrote to ‘Annie’. Some years there was little news and it was a long slow process. By ’71 it was done. It was good to know the wild ones would be allowed to live. It did not last long. Look at how they were betrayed. This is what we fight now. Betrayal. mar


    • “BETRAYAL” (or backstabbing) is the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship amongst individuals, between organizations or between individuals and organizations. YUP… betrayal.


  8. The main point of Wild Horse Annie’s courageous and SUCCESSFUL campaign was that fewer than 20,000 wild horses and burros remained on the range.

    Maybe my math is off, but this is the way I see BLM WH&BP actions going forward.

    As I understand it, the BLM’s target is a static population of 26,000 Wild Horse & Burros by 2013, but, considering the recent and projected rate of removals, they will likely get to 26,000 much sooner.

    Their stated goal is to match the annual population growth with the adoption rate, but the adoption rate is steadily declining. It fell by about 23% per year between FY 2007-2009. If the adoption rate continues to decline by 23% annually, the BLM, by it’s own current policy of matching removals to adoptions, will be REQUIRED to remove to a HMA population of about 20,000 wild horses and burros by 2013 – the very number that triggered the 1971 Act.

    Will the BLM use the “wild” horses and burros in holding to justify removals from the HMAs to below 20,000? I wouldn’t put it past them.

    Am I making sense?

    P.S. – Global Warming is predicted to continue its devistating impact on the West. At one time land animals could migrate to survive – like the ancestors of our wild horses migrated North, crossed the Bering Land Bridge, and SUPPOSEDLY became extinct in North America.

    Now that our Mustangs and burros are not allowed to migrate, a combination of drought and super-cell thunderstorms (resulting in both wildfires and flash-floods) will hasten not only their demise, but also the demise and possible extinction of other animals in the wild.

    Global Warming should have little or no “significant impact” on the extraction and alternative energy projects slated to replace the animals. Projects which will, undoubtedly, exacerbate the many problems facing the West.


  9. I read Wild Horse Annies book many years ago. It’s straight to the point, no pussy foot’en around. Between that book & everything my Great Uncle ( Now deceased rancher from Winn. Nevada ( who used & dearly loved Mustangs) told me, I’ve never forgotten what happened then but had no idea that BLM was working hard now to get rid of our wild horses until reasently.
    I may not be able to do all that Velma did but I’m working hard at what I can do. I hit on Presidents Face Book nearly every day. I sit here & print every thing comments & all making notes of my own on each Article then add personal letter to a box sent off to President. Am ready to send ANOTHER 1 or 2 boxs next week. Maybe if more of us did this ( print & send snail mail) to President one week Then hit up Vise President another & so forth down the line we could get a responce.
    Talk to all your friends, have them write out WHY they need these horses & WHY the horses don’t belong on ranches & Snail mail them To Pres. or Vise Pres. Copy them & send Snail mail to your State Government.
    My Ex- Senator told me BLM’s plan was a good one, I don’t think so… this is why Government needs to know WHY we don’t agree with BLM’s plan!!!!!!!


  10. The true heartbreak for those of us who are old Is to realize ..It is now worse for the mustangs than when Annie began her fight.Lo these 60 years I’ve been fighting/watching the ebb and flow of the War against mustangs.Several times I thought Almost there then the tide would turn and the extinction would start, Again.I remember helping little kids write thru Weekly Reader mag. and Girls Scout troops and anyone else who would write on behalf of the mustangs.So many pleas and prayers, words of wisdom,lawsuits etc yet here we are watching the stallions die defending their bands, babies being murdered, mothers shot… but soon there won’t be anymore wild horses to fight for and for that I apologize to a Very brave woman who tried and almost saved the Wild Horse Nation! Almost!!


    • Elliroo, you and I both are oldER and I agree with you that things are even worse now for our wild horses. The helicopter pilots find them no matter where they are and stampede them for miles.
      Today in NV the BLM is rounding up more near where an advocate lives and her mustang is all upset and running around in his corral. If I was there I don’t know what I would do.
      Did you ever see the video , El Caballo, that Andrea Lococo helped make? It is so accurate about the brutality of roundups.


  11. Wild Horse Annie has been my hero since I was a little girl!! I always wanted to be like her when I grew up. Velma Johnston was a one woman army, valiant, strong-willed & determined! For anyone who hasn’t read the book that was mentioned, it’s wonderful, I highly recommend it! She worked so hard for the wild horses she loved, it’s so sad & tragic to see them now, to see what our dumb-ass government has done to them, & continues non-stop to this day!! Velma would roll over in her grave, but, I wish there was someone just like her now, someone with the right amount of nerve & clout, & power & determination, to save these beautiful wild horses! I don’t understand why throughout history, there seems to be a love-hate relationship between man & horses. How can people be so blinded that they can’t see the value & worth of these highly intelligent & versatile horses, as a distinct breed, & ALIVE, versus extinct in the wild or dead!!


  12. I think what set Annie apart and made her unique-she had already faced a life of adversity with her polio, the way she handled that gave her the fortitude and determination to take on this next struggle..She did not pity herself-she did not look for pity from others..she did not look at the size of the obstacle..just the necessity of “doing”.She listened to the good advice of others and ignored the naysayers..she had what we all need-strength of character..and while most of us have never faced her adversity and challenges we must have something in our lives to draw on to be fearless in this fight..So everyone dig deep-I feel the same pressure as Annie did at the time..the near extinction of the Wild Horses is looming.


    • Well said. And totally agree! I just send my daughter, who is graduating vet school this year, a copy of the book, as I had recently read it and was just overwhelmed with Velma Johnston’s drive, tenacity and incredibly strong strength of character! What a role model for women (or men), even if you are NOT a horse enthusiast!


  13. Weekly Reader? That was the name I was trying to come up with. I was trying to figure out how she managed to reach all those classrooms. I remember reading WR in elementary school and even doing a few projects like this. We can do this, too.

    I was listening to talk radio this week, and one of the persons being interviewed said that the only government agency he trusted was GAO, and that he believed GAO is constantly at work on behalf of the public. I am over writing the President. You can call him. In fact, please write him, if you think it will help. I still believe he could turn this around if he wanted to, but he doesn’t want to—wants to be a children’s book author, I hear. Maybe his next title will be, “Barrack has a very, very bad term: If China hadn’t cheated by actually using science, I would still be king of the hill.”


    • Obama’s book, “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters”, hit bookstores today. Things seemed to be going along okay until Chief Sitting Bull, which has Fox News in an uproar you can read about online.

      I looked at the book today, and copied the entire Sitting Bull story. The page starts with the question, “Have I told you that you are a healer?”, and the brief story starts, “Sitting Bull was a Sioux medicine man who healed broken hearts and broken promises.” So Obama admires this “healer”, yet continues to break our hearts and ignore the promises made for the wild ones?

      But more than the text, the illustration shows the real betrayal. It’s sunset, and Sitting Bull’s weathered face is a hillside, his sad eyes two buffalo, and five wild horses browse peacefully on his cheeks.

      “Though he was put in prison, his spirit soared free on the plains …” Sound familiar?

      This is the best image I could find:


      • Thank you for sharing the book info. with us, Linda. It is very sad when you think about it, I wonder what Mr. Obama will tell his daughters after all the wild horses are gone? Will he admit his faults, & say, “Even though I was the President of the United States of America, I chose not to do anything to stop their extinction in the wild, I chose to ignore the issue & look the other way, hoping no one would notice.” I hope for his sake, his two daughters can & will forgive him. He has the authority & the power to stop this before it’s too late, but, will he dare to be different than the rest, will he REALLY “change things”, will he actually listen to America, or, just continue to turn a deaf ear to this urgent issue??


  14. Excuse me, that acronym should be GOA–Government Office of Accountability. I think my brain has become inflamed with acronymitis.


  15. Anybody ever think that when Congress and Nixon signed the Act, they really were trying to shut Annie up and stifel public opinion? That they had every intention of allowing special interests to have their way on the q.t.? Seal the deal with the Burns Amendment?

    This is a supreme example of special interest corruption, subtrefuge and the abomination that is our system of government, to include the courts. This isn’t what the founding fathers (et al) originally constructed or intended.


    • No, I don’t, actually. Nixon did some very good things. He outlawed 1080 the poison compound in use back then to kill predators and ‘pests’ and it killed everything around it. We had been enjoying the rise of more science within the government and it was a golden time when the new processes with EPA and Endangered Species act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act gave the public a voice which then fell silent with the Bush years. We are fighting to get that back.

      Laura and Gordon called 5 witnesses yesterday that the BLM was not prepared to cross examine! There was not enough time for L & G to get all their evidence out. So another round in 15 days… mar


    • Good point Denise! This is precisely, why I keep saying, the Law in itself is just NOT enough. We already had a “Law Protecting the WH & Bs” The Gov’t just makes “mockery out of any Law!


    • Obama has not stopped the introduction of a poison used on prairie dogs at the same time we have been trying to protect them. They are the food of many creatures; hawks and eagles and black footed ferrets which were wiped out by use of 1080 on them in the late 60s and early 70s. Now Obama is bringing back 1080. Poisons are non specific and kill everything exposed to it. They do not belong on our public lands. mar


    • Thank you for sending the link to the Hopi prophecy, Elliroo. You are right. We have not learned and now it may be too late .


  16. We need to repeal Conrad/Burns amendment. Tack it on the bill for the tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans and the republicans will pass it no problem.


    • I don’t understand how the Burns Amendment is legal in the first place. It directly affects the status of the wild equines and weakens the purpose of the 1971 Act. It was never debated AND was slipped into an appropriations bill.

      If the 1971 Act was about human or civil rights, there is no way a “Burns Amendment” weakening the Act would have been allowed. It was a sneaky, covert, insidious attack of the Act itself and now makes the Act relatively worthless as to it’s original intent.

      p.s. I voted for Nixon. If people were either all good or all bad, it would be easy to walk through like and pick Presidents, friends spouses and make decisions. IOW…he wasn’t all bad; he wasn’t all good. That wasn’t my point in my previous post.
      p.s.s. Isn’t poison(s) in the wild use on the rise again? Thought I just saw something from Defenders or ASPCA.


  17. My children and I have just finished reading Marguerite Henry’s version of the story (Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West). We were in tears to think that the battle is still going on. If only all people loved the mustangs as we do….


  18. Wake up call! Now so called horse protection groups are actively sterilizing Virginia Range Mustangs and using a drug that could end virginia Range horses forever within a few years. The Virginia Range Sanctuary is going all out to oppose these so called horse groups who are doing the States bidding! We need help!!

    Liked by 1 person

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