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.


TOA Blog Hop: History of the Horse

From The Owls Approve: Before you met, where was your horse? Who bred him/her? What do you know about his sire and his dam? What do you know where he came from? Tell me about the time before he had a trainer.

So, where did Tristan come from? This is actually a complicated story, and the part of it that I think is most interesting to blog about is the very beginning.
Let’s hit the rewind button quickly. Before he came to me, Tristan was at a rescue in southern Maine. Before that, he was in the custody of the state of New York after being seized as part of an animal cruelty investigation. Before that, he was on a farm in upstate New York alongside a few dozen other horses, some of them alive, and some of them dead. Most of them dead. Before that, he was in various places across the United States, various large and small holding pens as the gears of the government system ground on.
Before that?
Tristan was born in central Nevada in 1995, in a remote desert area at the foothills of the Toiyabe mountain range. It’s a decent guess that he was born in spring, and stayed with his dam for a few months – maybe up to a year, even. In the wild, horses travel in a variety of different kinship groups. Foals are born into family bands, groups of mares and sometimes adolescent stallions, owned or guarded over by one, sometimes two, stallions.
Bachelor herd.
By the time he was a long yearling, Tristan had probably moved on to a bachelor herd. Maybe he left on his own; maybe he was chased off by his dam, ready to drop another foal; maybe he was chased off by his sire, or by another stallion who had taken over his family band. It’s nearly impossible to know.
Gather in the Callaghan HMA, 2010
Tristan ranged with that bachelor herd for nearly three years, until one day in February 1999, when he was rounded up and gathered by the Bureau of Land Management, or by a contractor working for the BLM. He was herded into pens with other members of his bachelor herd, gelded, freezebranded, and given basic vaccines and a Coggins test. (His first proof of vaccine lists an entire page of mustangs, the freezebrand numbers before and after his own; cousins? brothers? friends? or some mixup of horses from different herds that all ended up in the same pen at the same time? who knows?) Then he was shipped east, and the story I relayed above began.
I’ve done a lot of research over the years to find out what Tristan’s life was like growing up. Thanks to his gather paperwork, we know he was part of a 1999 gather from the Callaghan Herd Management Area. The BLM divides the public lands where mustangs range into these herd management areas, which are then grouped together in district offices. Callaghan is part of the Battle Mountain District Office. It is close to the Ravenswood, Bald Mountain, New Pass, and Rocky Hills Herd Management Areas. Together, these HMAs consist of 640,148 acres around Austin, Nevada.
Austin is marked here; dead center in Nevada, and on the edges of the Toiyabe National Forest.
Here’s what the BLM says about Callaghan (source): 

The Callaghan HMA is located northeast of the town of Austin, Nevada and encompasses over 156,230 acres of public land. The HMA is approximately 27 miles long and 16 miles wide. The entire Callaghan HMA lies in Lander County at the north end of the Toiyabe Mountain Range.

The Toiyabe Mountain Range in Lander County, NV

Topography/vegetation: The proposed gather area is located within Central Nevada within the Great Basin. Much of the rangeland at lower elevations consists of salt desert shrub and Wyoming big sagebrush communities. Pinyon and Juniper are prevalent in the mid and upper elevations. Precipitation averages 6-10 inches per year in the valleys and up to 16+ inches in the mountains. Drought conditions may occur 1 out of every 3-4 years. These HMAs are comprised of north/south trending mountain ranges surrounded by wide valley bottoms. Perennial streams are infrequent, and most waters consist of small springs, ponds and wells or springs developed to include pipelines and troughs. 

Another view of the Toiyabe Mountain Range, from the valley floor.

Wildlife: Within the proposed project area, numerous species of wildlife occur. Mule deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats are the main game and fur bearing species present. Chukar, California quail, morning doves, and cottontail rabbits constitute the major upland game species. In addition, a variety of non-game mammals, birds, and reptiles occur in the project area. Very common shrub nesting species include the sage thrasher, sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, horned lark and meadow lark. The loggerhead shrike, common nighthawk, various wrens, warblers, larks and swallows are all common. . Species that nest in aspen communities include the northern goshawk, broad-tailed hummingbird, northern flicker, house wren, American robin, warbling vireo, yellow-rumped warbler, junco, western wood pewee, lazuli bunting, and western tanager. Common reptilian wildlife in the Complex includes collared lizard, Great Basin fence lizard, northern sagebrush lizard, horned lizard, Great Basin whiptail, Great Basin gopher snake, and Great Basin rattlesnake.

Horse Colors: These HMAs support wild horses that exhibit the full spectrum of colors of wild horses including the most common colors of bay, brown, sorrel and black, but also include the more brilliant colors of palomino, grulla, pinto, roan and Appaloosa.

Size of Horses: Wild horses within these HMAs average 14-15 hands in height and weigh 900-1,100 pounds as adults.

History: Wild horses in these areas are traced back to domestic ranch horses used for ranching, transportation and mining when the areas were settled. Genetic analysis indicates that these horses are similar to domestic breeds with indications of Light Racing and Riding Breeds, North American Gaited Breeds, Morgan, Old Spanish, Old World Iberian and Oriental Breeds. The genetic variability of all of these herds is high and no signs of inbreeding are present in the genetics analysis.

This page has a great selection of horses from the different HMAs in the Battle Mountain District, and suggests that Callaghan horses tend to be colorful and leggier, due to Thoroughbred influence on the breeding stock, which fits with the BLM’s genetic analysis. Tristan is 15 hands, 15.1 in shoes, and is actually on the tall side for a mustang – many of them hover around 14 hands. There are clear Spanish influences in his head and neck, and his aptitude for cross-country and jumping (though sadly not his overall athletic ability) is much higher than the average mustang, which may also point to TB. On a fun note, the Pony Express went through Austin, NV, which was a lonely mining outpost. Maybe Tristan has some ancestors who were stringer horses for the Pony Express? It’s possible!
mustangs · rescue

Rescuing Wild Mustangs in Maine

Ten years ago, I graduated from college and moved to southern Maine to live with family for the summer. Lacking in funds but in need of horse time, I followed my aunt’s recommendation and called up Ever After Mustang Rescue and offered myself as a volunteer. I had some rescue experience, and a decent amount of horse experience.

I met Mona Jerome on the first day and quickly learned that she was one of the most dedicated, intuitive horsewomen I had ever seen. She had an eye and a quietness about her that was truly extraordinary. Any ground handling and training skills I have today are due to the summer I spent under her tutelage.

Midway through that summer, I was given a horse nicknamed “Big Red” as a training project. I taught him to stand to be groomed, pick up his feet, accept a saddle, and gave him half a dozen rides under saddle. When I left Maine for my job in Vermont that fall, I missed him desperately.

The rest, as they say, is history. Mona and her husband Brad hauled my new horse – renamed Tristan – to me on January 2 and my adventure began.

I tell you this because I recently came across a wonderful article about Mona and her work, and I wanted to share a little bit of my background with her.

Enjoy the article: Rescuing Wild Mustangs in Maine

blog hop · mustangs · rescue

Viva Carlos Blog Hop: Interested Parties

What made you interested in your current horse that led you to buying them in the first place?

Fun question! With a semi-interesting answer for me.

The summer after I graduated from college, I moved down to Maine to live with family for the summer to do something different. I had a job as a cashier at a convenience store on the beach for the summer season, which did not pay nearly enough to continue riding lessons.

So I asked around and found a nearby horse rescue and began volunteering my time: Ever After Mustang Rescue.

I started mucking stalls and doing general cleaning, and moved on to handling horses. We rode some of the older non-mustang, completely-broke horses when we had time, but mostly it was ground work boot camp: how many of these horses can we teach to stay calm while brushed, lead like good citizens, pick up their feet, and in general be civilized domestic ponies? The mustangs there ranged from just in from the wild to some who had been living domestically for years but still had zero training to show for it.
Midway through the summer, a rich woman visited and decided she was going to adopt about a half dozen mustangs and bring them to her land so she could look at them out the window and, I don’t know, get a sense of ‘Murica and freedom or something. She had staff come and look at horses and choose the ones she wanted.
One of those was a red roan gelding that everyone called “Big Red” because at 15 hands with good bone, he was one of the largest horses on the property. (Mustangs run small!) He was very flashy and had a cute face, which fit the lady’s criteria for what she wanted to look at every day.
So I was assigned Red, who could not be handled in any way shape or form: could not be touched, could not be groomed, was moved from place to place (like several other horses) by the expediency of closing off some doors & gates, opening others, and herding him.
Many, many hours and weeks later, I had a nice little horse with pretty decent manners. I started him under saddle, and right about that time the rich lady changed her mind. Red was going to stay at the rescue. I did about five rides with him in a sidepull and old saddle, including one in the open, and at the end of the summer kissed his nose and headed off to the job I had lined up for September back in Vermont.
Except, I had fallen in love with him. And the horse I’d been leasing for years went finally, irreversibly, unsound. And I started number-crunching and pondering Ramen noodles.
So I made the call, and after a $150 donation to the rescue, Red – now named Tristan – came to me on January 2, in the dead of winter, and became mine.
In large part, I lucked out. I did not have nearly as much experience in evaluating a horse to have gotten the horse I did on skill. I knew that he was essentially good-natured, very smart, decently athletic, and very handsome. I knew how we worked together, and that his basic ground manners were good. I had the confidence from my summer at the rescue to continue to develop his ground work.
I would go about choosing a horse very, VERY differently these days, but I do not regret the way Tristan came to me.