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 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.