book review · equestrian history · mustangs

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

Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston
by David Cruise & Alison Griffiths

If you’ve read Marguerite Henry’s Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West, then you have some passing familiarity with the story of the American mustangs and with Velma Johnston, the Nevadan housewife who made it her personal crusade to save them.

If that’s all you’ve read about the preservation battle behind the mustang, then you’ve only got a quarter of the story. This book is a superb way to get the rest of it.

Velma Johnston was born in small-town Reno, Nevada. Stricken with polio at an early age, she grew up solitary, smart, and driven. She spent her entire life in pain from post-polio syndrome and facing a world that judged her harshly for the hunched back and misshapen face that polio left behind.

One of the biggest strengths of this book is its unflinching, compassionate look into Velma’s life, achieved through a deep dive into her personal papers – tens of thousands of pages of letters, primarily. The Velma you get to know through this book would have initially said she was happiest as a successful executive secretary to the owner of a real estate business and a ranch wife.

The trajectory of her life changed when she followed a truck dripping blood to discover that it was full of badly injured and dying mustangs. She and her husband Charlie were gradually drawn into a life of activism as they started finding and releasing mustangs that had been rounded up for dog food, then networking to stop roundups before they started. Soon, Velma was the central figure in a widening campaign to ban mustang roundups by airplane.

The book doesn’t shy away from the cruelties inflicted on mustangs, and it does a good job of dispassionately presenting the various arguments for and against the mustang. It’s perhaps a bit light on the history of the mustangs (a little more time spent on parsing the difference between “wild” and “feral,” and the different emotional weights to each, would have given context to one of the main points of disagreement between mustang activists and cattle men), but gives a pretty decent overview of the ecological challenges of the Western ranges.

As someone who knew the broad outlines of the story, I found this telling of it to be superb. It was tightly and engagingly written, well-researched, and had a strong narrative and tight focus on Velma herself. Nor did it shy away from Velma’s failings and character flaws, particularly in her dealings with photographer Gus Bundy and then in her relationship with Marguerite Henry (which began warmly but grew overly emotional and difficult). The section dealing with Henry was actually one of the best in the book, since it allowed both for a grounding of the broader story and for a reflection on Velma’s life and character.

While it presents both sides fairly, the book can probably be said to have a point of view that is pro-mustang. The Bureau of Land Management doesn’t come off terribly well, though all of the most damning material is simple statements of fact and quotes from BLM officials. (The authors acknowledge this in a note at the end.)

University of Reno – Nevada, Special Collections

Ultimately, the last chapter after Velma’s death is the most unsatisfying; she passed away just in the midst of the architecture of wild horse management as we know it today, with its inherent contradictions and fatal flaws. It’s especially depressing because she fought for a comprehensive scientific range management from the start, and never saw that urgently needed piece of the puzzle realized. Without thoughtful, objective study, it was inevitable that we get to the place we are now, where no one can even agree on the number of mustangs in the West, much less how they actually use the range and how to effectively balance the needs of the flora and fauna.

In that last chapter, Cruise & Griffiths bring the fight quickly up to date and touch on the process of adoption and the regular Congressional attempts to round up mustangs for slaughter again. They also point out how deeply unsatisfying Velma herself would’ve found the holding pen system, in which thousands of mustangs are rounded up and simply transferred from the range and pastured on private land, paid for by tax dollars.

Despite its muddy ending, this is a really terrific book. I’m very picky about my narrative nonfiction: the writing has to be good, the interpretation deft, and the research solid. This ticks all of those boxes. I generally have even less patients for topics I already have a background in, but this holds up to that test as well. I genuinely couldn’t put it down.

If you’re looking for a thoughtful read about horses and history, I strongly recommend this. If you want to understand more about mustangs and how we’ve reached this point in our national discourse about them, it’s essential reading.

blog hop · mustangs

Blog Hop: Bloodlines

I’m a horrible person, because I can’t remember the exact name people are using for this blog hop but…I keep reading these really neat posts about equine bloodlines, from OTTBs to all sorts of other breeds and I’m over here, like…well, Tristan definitely has ancestors?

Fun game: cover up his freezebrand, put him in front of people, and say, “what breed?” Then watch their faces. I’ve gotten Andalusian, Morgan, Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, the list goes on. (No one has ever guessed “dachshund” sadly.)
It’s funny because what even is going on there with that conformation? sigh.
So I thought I’d link to a few posts I’ve done before about where he comes from, which is as close to tracking his bloodlines as I’ll ever get.
Blog Hop: History of a Horse – about the Callaghan HMA where he was rounded up
Rescuing Wild Mustangs in Maine – about Tristan’s rescue, and how we met

My favorite internet game: BLM adoption photos!

I am not really one for window shopping horses online. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve browsed Dreamhorse. I occasionally look at listings for Lippitt Morgans and just shake my head. I don’t even really look at flyer at the local farm stores.

I do make one giant exception: the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Online Adoption galleries.

Mustangs, you guys. Even though I stumbled into them, apparently they have a giant hold on my heart.

So here’s my favorite game: who would you take home?

Here’s the online gallery to browse through. Comment with the number of and/or link to your picks!

Right now, I’m loving #5641

And I am head over heels for #5696.

donating · mustangs · rescue

For Your Consideration: #GivingTuesday at Ever After Mustang Rescue

I’ve written before about Tristan’s rescue, mostly here and here. It remains a place near and dear to my heart because it gave me my best friend, and because it is a place where good people do good work.

Today is Giving Tuesday, as those of us in the nonprofit world know well. The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the busiest time of the year for fundraising. People are feeling more generous around the holidays and the more practical among them are looking at their impending tax filings.

So, on this Tuesday after the shopping and spending orgy that was the long weekend, many are considering giving back to their communities.

I will be making a donation to Ever After Mustang Rescue to support their work in rescuing and retraining mustangs.

Here’s my twist.

Please comment on this post today with a horse-related nonprofit that you support. Even better, tell me that you’ve donated to that organization.

For each comment, I will donate an additional $5 to Ever After Mustang Rescue. (Up to a reasonable amount, I do still have a horse.)

So: let me know where you will be supporting with your donations today, or where you have supported in the past. (Last year, I did a roundup of horse-related charities; you can find it here.)

(I did think about making additional donations to the organizations you all support but the logistics started to scramble my brain. Maybe next year.)


Tristan’s Scariest Scar

Tristan was a wild horse for four years in central Nevada. I wrote a little bit about where he came from here: the Callaghan Herd Management Area.

After that, he was in BLM custody for two years. After that, he was in an adoptive home for two years. Then he was relocated to the rescue for two years. Then he came to me.

At some point prior to coming to me, he acquired a really scary scar.

His roan coloring means that scars show up as darker spots against his coat. See just above his hock? That dark line along the tendon?
The picture doesn’t show it very well, but it’s actually a semi-circle, There’s a matching one on the other side. Those are teeth marks.
Have you ever seen a horse – a boss mare, usually – herd other horses, head snaked down low, teeth bared? It’s the equine body language equivalent of MOVE RIGHT THE FUCK NOW.
My best guess is that at some point Tristan did not move fast enough, and another horse bit him, just above the hock, on either side of that tendon. Badly enough to go through the skin, and then heal so that it left a pretty big scar.
He has never – knock wood – been lame on that leg, so it obviously healed. But can you imagine the perfect series of circumstances that had to occur so that an injury that gnarly healed without any lasting damage – in the wild?


Elisa Wallace & mustangs

I posted a video on Sunday of Elisa Wallace doing a mustang demo at Rolex, and then the Chronicle re-linked to this really lovely interview they did with her before her debut at Rolex.

This quote in particular stuck out to me:

You get addicted to the process and the journey that you go through with them. There is a certain sense of magic that’s a little bit different with them. I just really enjoy working with them and I’ve just become really passionate about them. It’s something I never thought I’d be spearheading, as far as being an ambassador and doing what I’m doing, but I really enjoy it and I really think there are some nice horses out there that should be given a chance. They love the job. They’re like any horse that likes to jump and compete, if you find one they’ll give you everything.

I mean, not every mustang loves his job, but yeah. They’re horses.  And with them, it really is all about the journey. It has to be. Going into a relationship with a mustang with hard-and-fast goal is a crapshoot. They’re not like a finely bred dressage machine, which has generations of breeding and conformation and environment telling it to be a certain thing. They are scrappy little mutts who behave as wild prey animals.

The director of the rescue I got Tristan from, whom I worked with for a summer, always said that you should go into everything with a mustang assuming it will take all the time you have, and then some. There are no quick lessons. There is bricklaying, backbreaking foundation work, over and over and over and over again.

I always tell people that the thing I’m most proud of with Tristan is not any of our riding accomplishments (which are paltry at best) but that he trusts me, and lets me lead him, and groom him. He seeks me out affectionately. That he went from wild animal to sweetheart still amazes me.