Johnston, Velma B.

Velma Johnson's advocacy for wild horses and burros resulted in legislation that protected both the animals and the habitat in which they live. Her single minded pursuit of humane treatment of animals who could not defend themselves is an example of how an individual can have an impact on the larger society.
Biographical Highlight

Johnson, Velma B.Velma Bronn Johnston, born in Nevada in 1912, was largely responsible for ensuring the survival of herds of wild horses and burros in the American west.  Her work also led to some of the environmental legislation that helps to protect public lands.

Johnston contracted polio at the age of eleven and the disease left her with some disabilities.  However, she continued to excel in school and worked with the livestock on her family’s ranch.  As an adult she worked as an executive secretary for an insurance brokerage for forty years.  Ms. Johnston met her husband, Charley, while visiting her father in the hospital.  They soon married and moved to the Double Lazy Heart Ranch in Wadsworth, Nevada.  From 1950 until her death in 1977 Johnston worked to preserve the wild horse and burro herds in the west, and their habitat.   

Historic Roots

The wild horse and burro herds that wandered the American west in the early 20th century were the descendents of horses brought to the southwest by the Spanish in the 1600’s.  Some of these horses escaped or were abandoned and, over time, formed herds of what we have come to know as mustangs.  By 1950 the demand for horsemeat to be used for pet food grew to the point that large numbers of these wild equines were being rounded up and slaughtered under inhumane conditions (Worcester, 1986).

Velma Johnston’s interest in saving the wild horses stemmed from one such roundup, which she happened to observe, in 1950.  Driving to work one morning she encountered a truck hauling horses.  Noticing some blood dripping from the truck, Johnston followed it to its destination, where she observed first hand the cruelty of the wild horse slaughtering process.  She resolved to do something about what she had seen (ISPMB).

She began to advocate not only for humane treatment of the mustangs and burros, but also for the preservation of the herds.  Since the herds lived primarily on public land, Johnston lobbied Congress for a law protecting the animals.  This advocacy was not popular in the rancher community where Johnston lived, but she eventually succeeded.  Her opponents began to call her “Wild Horse Annie” as a kind of derogatory nickname, but Johnston adopted the slur and used it throughout her crusade as a kind of marketing image.  In 1959 a law which prohibited the use of motorized vehicles to capture wild horses and burros, and prohibited the poisoning of water holes, was enacted, (PL86-234).  This law is known as the “Wild Horse Annie Law.”

Johnston was the first woman to receive the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Humanitarian of the Year award in recognition of her work.  She continued to fight for the wild horses of the west until her death in 1977.  Among other accomplishments, she was a founder of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, an organization that has continued the work that she began.  The Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, passed over the objections of the Bureau of Land Management, was another of her successes (Ibid.).


Velma Johnston’s work is important because she caused all of us to focus on the danger of losing the last of our wild horses and burros.  Her advocacy resulted in legislation that protected both the animals and the habitat in which they live.  PL86-234 and the Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 are concrete examples of the success of Wild Horse Annie’s effort.  The formation of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB) was, perhaps, even more important because it created a permanent organization whose mission is to watch over the well being of these animals.  The ISPMB has been successful in establishing an Adopt-A-Horse/Burro program that has found homes for large numbers of these animals that had to be removed from their herds.  ISPMB has also convinced many states and the federal government to establish protected ranges for herds of these mustangs and burros.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The work of Velma Bronn Johnston almost defines the kind of advocacy that the philanthropic sector supports.  Her single minded pursuit of humane treatment of animals who could not defend themselves is an example of how an individual can have an impact on the larger society.  The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros has been raising money and employing volunteers in pursuit of its goals for many years.  The mission of the ISPMB is compatible with the goals of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), The Wild Horse Foundation, and the Wild Horses of America Foundation.   

Key Related Ideas

  • Animal Adoption:  The practice of matching animals that need a home with humans who are willing and able to care for them humanely.
  • Species Preservation: The idea that each unique species has some intrinsic value and should be kept from extinction through human effort, if necessary.
  • Animal Welfare:  the compassion and respect due animals as living, responsive beings.  Animals are entitled to kind and respectful treatment at the hands of humans, and this is not to be left to the compassionate impulses of humans, but is an entitlement that must be protected under the law.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Helen and John Reilly:  Co-founders of the ISPMB with Velma Johnston in 1960.  They wanted to help with her effort to save the wild horses.
  • Monica Terkildsen:  Secretary/Treasurer of ISPMB and member of the Lakota band of the Sioux Indian Nation.   Her tribal lands are now home to several wild horse herds.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Related Web Sites

  • Equisite: The Ultimate Horse Resource (  This site is a wonderful portal into all topics equine.  Numerous links are available for almost any horse related subject.
  • (  is a good source of links to equine web sites including equine art and horse rescue operations.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Anthony Amaral.  Mustangs: Life and Legends of Nevada’s Wild Horses.  (Reno:  University of Nevada Press, 1977.)

Frank J. Dobie.  The Mustangs. (Omaha:  University of Nebraska Press, 2005).  ISBN 0803266502.

Don Worcester.  The Spanish Mustang.  (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1986.)