Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston

David Cruise and Alison Griffiths / Scribner / 308 pages

Velma Bronn Johnston’s boss told her at the end of her lengthy secretarial career, “The world is made up of three kinds of people—those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who don’t know what’s happening. Go girl, go!” Velma Johnston, or “Wild Horse Annie” as she was referred to by fans and foes alike, was definitely in the first category. Her life was filled with the pursuit and accomplishment of lofty goals, as is brilliantly chronicled by authors David Cruise and Alison Griffiths in their new book, Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston.

More than just a biography of the most vocal and colorful advocate for wild horses in the last century, this well-researched book is a raw history of the shocking plight of America’s mustangs and an overview of the movement that grew from Velma’s tireless efforts and continues today.

During her lifetime, Velma overcame the torment, disfigurement and pain associated with contracting polio at an early age. Reading the book leaves one with the clear impression that Velma’s empathy for wild horses—considered by some to be unsightly, useless, and in the way—was rooted in her personal trials. If this indeed was the seed of her empathy, it was an event in 1950 that served as the catalyst for her activism. On her way to work as an executive secretary in Reno, Nevada, she was horrified to witness a livestock truck filled with bloodied and dying mustangs fated for the pet food slaughter industry. That grotesque sight sparked a life-long crusade to educate the public and public officials, to lobby legislators, and even to engage in direct action, secretly freeing frightened, trapped mustangs who had been brutally removed from the range and were doomed for slaughter.

In many ways, Wild Horse Annie emulated the very animals she loved—taking a tough, steady, survivalist approach to winning significant victories for wild horses. The book recounts Velma’s fervent campaign that culminated in passage of two pieces of federal legislation: the 1959 Wild Horse Annie Act that prohibited the cruel practices of using aircraft to round up wild horses and of poisoning their watering holes; and the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that served to protect wild horses and burros as living symbols of the history and pioneer spirit of the West. (Christine Stevens, the founder of the Animal Welfare Institute, was an important ally, and is mentioned several times throughout the book.)

Velma Johnston was a complex person with paradoxes in her life that make reading Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs like setting off on a thrill seeking trail ride. Every turn reveals a remarkable scene, some awe-inspiring and others somewhat jolting and off-putting, but taken together, a fascinating adventure.