Wild horses, part one: The misfits

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Velma Bronn Johnston (Alternate crop, Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Velma Bronn Johnston (Alternate crop, Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Mrs. Velma Johnston typed letters, filed carbon copies, and answered the phone at the insurance office where she worked as a secretary. She dressed conservatively, smiled often, and spoke kindly. She sat with good posture, as good as she was able, as long as she could.

Her husband Charlie drove her to work each day through the dun-colored hills of Virginia City, Nevada. From her window, she could see some of the few wild horses that still ran free.

One day in 1950, Velma looked ahead at a truck they followed through the hills. When they grew close, Velma gasped. Blood ran from truck and dripped on the road. Wild horses had been gathered violently and crammed in the bed. Mares and studs had trampled a yearling under their hooves. The truck turned, and headed out of town toward a cannery, where wild horses were bought for a few cents a pound and killed for pet food.

Velma couldn't breathe. When she got home that day, she began to make phone calls. She began to ask questions. She found out the grisly truth about the mustangs and what would happen to them next. She resolved to put an end to the slaughter, however she could. She would fight for the dignity of wild horses from that day, for the rest of her life, from her county seat, to the Nevada state Capitol, then finally, to Washington, D.C.

This is the story of how Velma Bronn Johnston became Wild Horse Annie.

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Wild mustangs (Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Wild mustangs (Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Mustengos once roamed the high plains in the millions, in herds of a few dozen, or as few as a handful, a manada. They ate native grass, trampled their native dun-colored hills. They ran free. 

Stallions led harems of mares until they lost control. Young horses challenged them when they grew old. They fought bitterly with hooves and teeth until one gave up, or died.

Smaller than draft horses and Percherons, thicker than Arabians, the scrappy survivors had descended from domesticated horses left behind by Spanish colonial armies and American colonial settlers. They doubled and trebled until their herds painted swaths across the West in a rainbow of earth colors, gray and brown, spotted and buckskin.

In the 1800s they swarmed across lightly populated territories, but as those plains were settled and planted, new herds of livestock displaced the horses. Cattle needed the grasslands to thrive and to feed settlers. They took the place of the mustangs, and ranchers took the mustangs in turn.

The wild horses of a romantically rendered, bygone era were broken and put to work by miners, homesteaders, sharecroppers, and dairy farmers. They were free for the taking. They were good at work. The mustangs had lived in hard scrubland and could pick their way through rough terrain. They could travel for miles with little or no water. They could survive on little food. They were smart enough to anticipate cattle movements, and cowboys could count on them to help with the lonesome, tiring work of roundups.

A population of more than 2 million wild horses fell to 20,000 before World War II. Those left behind retreated to the most remote stretches of the Nevada desert. They were underfed, scrawny. They were misfits.

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Velma Bronn Johnston, Wild Horse Annie (Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Velma Bronn Johnston, Wild Horse Annie (Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Joseph Bronn nearly starved on the long journey his family made from Nebraska to California in a covered wagon. The family ran out of food when they reached the Nevada desert. Bronn’s father killed a mare that had just given birth, and gave its milk to his son.

Bronn thrived, and grew up to ranch family land in California. He and his wife raised a family on it. They welcomed Velma on March 5, 1912, then three more children. 

The family lived an idyllic farm life, Velma later recalled, but her childhood ended cruelly when she contracted polio in 1923. The family rushed her to San Francisco in the hope of a cure. The doctors wrapped her in a cast from her waist over the top of her head, and left her in it for six months. She broke out in tears when doctors cut the cast away. Her head had grown distorted. Her chin had receded. Her jaw muscles had pulled to the right. Her right eye had risen higher than the left.

She came home to a completely different body, and to a completely changed life. While gone, her brother died of polio, and her father had moved the family from California to a Nevada ranch. To ease her recovery, her father gave her a horse, which she named Hobo.

When Velma went to school, children teased her because of her looks. She steeled herself and turned their insults into an opportunity. She asked them to play, and her classmates said yes. People stared, and she knew how she looked to them, but she always smiled—and they smiled back.

Velma grew up, and left home, for a while. She married a strapping Native American man, Charlie Johnston. At 6-feet-4 and 225 pounds, he was her opposite. He bore a strong resemblance to John Wayne. He helped her run the Lazy Heart Ranch that belonged to her parents. Soon the young couple bought the ranch and renamed it: the Double Lazy Heart Ranch. 

Though they had none of their own, the Johnstons took in children and immersed them the beauty of nature. They taught them how to ride, while Velma chain-smoked menthol cigarettes, and smiled her wide, crooked, welcoming smile.

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