Wild Horse Annie ~ Tanya Hanson

 A couple days a month, I’m a muckraker at the local horse rescue in the foothills here in Central California. Each critter has his/her own story, always heartrending and inspiring both. Recently, a mommy horse from Nevada allegedly rescued from a slaughterhouse gave birth to a little colt at the comfortable, lovely sanctuary.

Although I’ll feature more of “our” horses in a future blog, I couldn’t resist showing you baby Jasper and his mama. And the rescue of horses brought to mind something I’d seen on a History Channel program long ago, about a woman fighting to preserve and protect the wild horses and burros on the American plains. I couldn’t remember the rescuer’s name. Mustang Sally stuck in my mind. But researching her, I found out she was “Wild Horse Annie”, otherwise known as Velma Johnston.

Truth is, the moniker “Wild Horse Annie” was given to her as a pejorative by men who thought her cause amusing, if not silly. But she wore it as a badge of courage.

Born in Washoe, Nevada, in 1912, Velma Bronn grew up on her parents’ “Lazy Double Heart Ranch”. Here she learned all about the humane treatment of horses and training them by gentle methods. A childhood bout of polio had her in a body cast for six months and left her with some disfigurements that caused cruelty from her schoolmates. This led her to concentrate on studies and the animals in her life.

After her marriage to Charles Johnston, she and her husband took over the operation of her family ranch, later turning  it into a “dude” ranch for children. And Velma took a job as a secretary for an insurance company.


At this time, no humane laws protected the herds of wild horses descended from the horses and burros left behind by explorers, conquistadors, miners, and pioneers. Most ended up slaughtered for pet foods, and the capture methods were horrific. Hard to write, but many were chased by airplanes or trucks until they collapsed from exhaustion, nostrils then wired shut, necks tied to truck tires while the vehicle continued its chase. After that horror, animals were packed so tightly in truck beds they couldn’t move, or fell and were trampled.

Velma was to write that she knew airplanes were used to capture the mustangs, but the practice didn’t touch her directly until 1950, when her ignorance was jarred.  While driving to work one day, she watched blood dripping from the truck in front of her and followed it to a rendering plant. Outraged and sickened by what she saw, especially the suffering and death of a year-old foal, Velma vowed to do something to keep this horror from happening again.

Her efforts got her Nevada county to pass a ban on the aircraft capture in 1952, and to pass laws that prevented round up by vehicles on private property. Nonetheless, federal lands were exempt…and 80% of Nevada was federal land. But Velma continued her fight.  On 8 September 1959, her efforts resulted in the federal law prohibiting the hunting and capture of horses on state land. Public Law 86-234 became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act.

In 1971, under Velma’s influence, Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which banned capture, injury or disturbances of wild horses and burros, and for their transfer to suitable areas when populations became too large.

Before her death from cancer in 1977 at age 65, Velma had been featured in Time magazine, and is said to have inspired Marilyn Monroe’s’ character in Arthur Miller’s 1961 Western, The Misfits. Appearing as herself, Velma starred alongside Lloyd Bridges and Dina Merrill in the 1973 Western, Running Wild.

Of course there are still “gathers” (round-ups) and controversy, mismanagement and claims of mistreatment, but that’s something for another blog, another day.

For today, I just loved learning about another strong Woman of the West.

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34 thoughts on “Wild Horse Annie ~ Tanya Hanson”

  1. Velma’s a true woman of the west — strong, smart and courageous. Thank your for introducing her! I saw “The Misfits” ages ago . . . time to see it again!

  2. What a wonderful woman! Great blog, Tanya and a great start to my day. People who champion the cause of the helpless, including animals, are true heroes.
    You are so lucky to live near that beautiful horse shelter. Even muckraking would be a privilege.

  3. Hi Vicki, I can’t wait to catch these old movies, either. I just thought Velma was incredible and brave, to buck the cynicism and rudeness she endured and to proceed to do something wonderful. Thanks for the post!

  4. I share those sentiments, Elizabeth, about how important it is to champion the wonderful, sentient creatures who share this world with us.

    I’ll be off to the shelter Friday. The horses just love their carrots, and I always load up at Costco. That’s the best part, giving them their treats. Thanks for posting today.

  5. Anyone who devotes their lives to saving animals will *always* be a hero in my eyes!

    Fascinating info on The Misfits too…love that movie!

  6. ‘Mornin’ Tanya. I just had to tell you about what we used to do when we were a bit younger. My husband worked for the BLM in the early 70’s. He rounded up burros in our border area between our county and Nevada. They were then taken to Bishop and put up for adoption. Now they are taken to Ridgecrest. But then, the program was new. And scary. If you’ve ever been around a wld, burro jack who hates you. They are devious and determined to get away from you. That’s why they could live out here for so long and thrive. Several times I would go and cook at their camp. It was rough and rowdy, but a lot of fun, too.
    Many times they guys would return to camp, empty handed! Burros: 1, Cowboys: 0. On occasion it was Burros: 10, Cowboys: 0. Hard work.

    • Hi Mary J, oh, I love donkeys. Your story really made me smile. And it sounds just like a chapter in a book you ought to write, especially having been the chuck cook!

      Yeah, donks might seem stubborn but it’s because they have minds of their own and don’t do stupid things LOL. Another hero of mine is Lucy Fensom, a British woman who followed her heart and established a rescue for donkeys in Israel. Check out her site http://www.safehaven4donkeys.org/
      It’ll both warm your heart and break it. I have rescued several donks over the years.

      Thanks so much for posting today!

  7. Hi Mary, I don’t get it, either. My heart just aches thinking about it. I can’t even watch Dances with Wolves or Man from Snowy River a second time because Two Socks (wolf pup) and the Mountain Horse were shot and killed. Of course that’s movies, but in real life, things can even be more staggeringly horrible.

    Thanks for the post.

  8. Hi Melissa, I share your sentiments exactly! After our two black Labs passed away fairly close together, my hubby and I decided to heal up for a while before adopting another dog. So I knew I couldn’t volunteer at the animal shelter–I’d be bringing home every dog I could. So I decided the horse rescue was a good fit…no way can I build a corral on my little suburban cul-de-sac!

    Thanks so much for stopping by today.

  9. Checked out the web site. She’s doing a great job. We have our own Reseuc here, just 20 miles south of town. Wild Burro Rescue and Preservation Project. https:www.WBRPP.com. Check it out.

  10. Again, very interesting. I never knew much about wold horses. Wild Horse Annie would have been an intersting person to meet.

  11. This was a very interesting post to read today. In some of my research on wild horses when I was younger, I never came across “Wild Horse Annie”. I enjoyed reading this and learning about her.

  12. Tanya,

    This post was so moving. It made me cry. I love horses, all animals, and to think such beautiful creatures were treated like that…It makes me so mad.

    Thank you for sharing this

    Walk in harmony,

  13. I’m surprised that the mare at your rescue facility was found at a slaughter plant. Everything I’ve read and heard in recent years indicates there are NO horse slaughter plants left in the U.S.A. That is one of the reasons for the increasing number of abandoned and feral horses in this country. Because of the economy many people can no longer afford to keep their horses and fewer than usual people are buying them. The big question is what is to become of these unwanted horses? Just as with cats and dogs we need to figure out a way to control this growing population of unwanted horses.

  14. hi Becky, so nice to see you here. I too onlylearned about Wild Horse Annie through a t.v. show. But if I’d been older during her campaigning and struggles, I’m sure I would have remembered and hopefully, helped out. Thanks!

  15. Hi Melinda, I knew you would like this information. Indeed, all animals are treasures. Thanks for visiting us here today.

    Hey Hilltop, thanks for the comment. One of the other horses was indeed a family pet who was too expensive to keep on feeding. So she was left on her own. Grrrrrr. Animals are part of the family and should be treated as such. Perhaps the slaughter thing was barnyard gossip. I’ll find out more accurately when I get there this week. Unfortunately, I think there still are several slaughterhouses in the U.S.

  16. Hi Tanya – stopping by to say hello. Great blog today. My cousin in Nevada, is an advocate and she is affiliated with Freedom for Wild Horses. And she owns 11 horses herself, many of them rescued. Thanks for the insightful post!!

    After my crazy deadline, I hope to stop by the Fillies, more often!!

  17. Hi Charlene, I wonder if I could blog your sister and also Mary J’s burro rescue sometime. I just love the way equines look you right in the eye. Ah, so intelligent. Always good to see you here. And no need to explain. I had to ask to extend my last two novella deadlines. I was seeing the keyboard in my sleep. oxoxox

  18. Hi Melinda, his mama is named Bella. There was a contest at the rescue as to the names.

    Estella, always agood when you come by Wildflower Junction. Thanks, ladies.

  19. Hi Jennie, oh yeah, they are the cutest pair ever. Having seen that sweetheart, it broke my heart even worse reading that Velma had to witness the death of a “yearling.” So awful. So good to see you here!

  20. Hi Margaret, I am so glad I got to learn a little more about Wild Horse Annie. Hard to imagine men making fun of her and her efforts. What a great lady. oxoxox

  21. TANYA–as I was reading this, I was trying to recall the name of the movie with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable about wild horses. Then toward the end, you mentioned it. Thanks…saved me from going to Google. The Misfits. One of the saddest movies I’ve even seen.
    I’m not a rider and I’m a little frightened of horse, but they always capture my attention when I see some in a field. I believe there is no animal as beautiful as a horse.
    Driving from N. Texas to Central Texas on 281 this last time, I saw more horse in fields than I ever had. One entire group were Appaloosas. Oh, so gorgeous.
    I admire and respect these horse rescuers, and you notice it’s more often women. There’s a rescue farm somewhere around here–I read about her in the paper and watched a video. About two years ago.
    Thanks for the interesting post…I truly enjoyed the photos. Celia

  22. Hi Celia, always so good to see you here. I am not one for sad movies, so I might have to pass. Sigh. I think women are truly so full of compassion, and as life givers themselves, they have a natural affinity for animals and helping them. I so admire Annie’s courage and determination, as well as Lucy Fensom in Israel, and the post Mary J sent. I checked it out. Yeah, good people out there!

  23. Some time, way back when I remember hearing about her. I can understand the desire to remove horses that are competing for grazing land with ranchers’ cattle. What I have never been able to understand, it the desire or need to cause unnecessary pain and stress on an animal. Some of this cruelty could be described a s torture. I could understand hunting them to reduce their numbers like you do deer, but not the actions they took.

    Thanks for another informative post.

  24. Thanks for stopping by, Patricia. Always so good to see you here. Ah, me, I’m not for hunting either. Something about a beautiful specimen of creation in the sight of a highpowered rifle just doesn’t do it for me. And now there’s aerial hunting of gorgeous wolves in Idaho. Don’t get me started…

  25. Don’t forget Marguerite Henry’s book Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West, which is a fictional retelling (but sounds pretty close to real life) of Wild Horse Annie’s story.

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