Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wild Horse Annie And The Last Of The Mustangs: The Life Of Velma Johnston

David Cruise & Alison Griffiths

2010, Scribner

Velma walked over and peered through a gap in the slats, expecting to find cattle or sheep. Instead, she saw a horrifying tableau of mutilated horses, some barely alive. Her eyes caught sight of a colt, or what was left of him, lying trampled, his bones crushed and coat blood-soaked. A number of horses had bloody stumps instead of legs. Others had sections of their hooves torn off and hides shredded by buckshot. A stallion stood with his head bowed, blood seeping from empty eye sockets. He had been blinded to subdue him. It was only the tight quarters that kept many of the horses upright. A penetrating stench, the combination of blood, urine and feces, rose from the truck while flies swarmed over the brutalized animals, jammed so tightly they couldn't flick the insects away with their tails.

In the spring of 1950, Velma Johnston was a 38-year-old woman permanently crippled up by a childhood attack of polio, but she was a fighter who'd carved out for herself the life she'd always wanted - a husband, a home, and horses. When she noticed blood flowing out of a livestock truck near Reno, Nevada she followed it to the stockyards, intending to let the driver know he had a hurt animal on board. What she found was the intended end of the wild horse in the American West - a bloody, violent death for the mustangs, thousands of dollars in slaughter sales for the chasers, and a more complex victory for the Burea of Land Management (BLM), the government agency that oversees vast swathes of public land in the United States.

The BLM's attitude was that the mustangs were a nuisance at best and a pest at worst, and needed to be eliminated. The authors trace that attitude back to various issues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the use of 'free' wild horses as a profitable source of meat to satisfy a growing market for commercial dog food, endless competition and violence over grazing rights, a new industrial market for horsehide in conveyor belts. But ultimately, the policy that the survival of the range and the rancher depended on the extinction of the mustang lay in the post-WWI expansion of ranches, and the heedless use of the range to feed herds. Over-stressed native grasses died; the plants that replaced them were less nourishing and when they also failed to hold the earth together as well, the topsoil began to wear away.

There was no incentive for conservation on the public land. Everyone owned it and nobody owned it. It was the classic dilemma of the commons, where no one takes responsibility for a resource that is free for all, and therefore it is ruined by all. And ruin was exactly the state of the grazing lands in the early 1930's when drought struck.

In 1934, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act. From that act came what would eventually be the BLM, and its power over 143 million acres of public land. From the beginning, the big cattlemen had a big voice with the BLM. The agency, under pressure to do something about the depleted grazing lands, blamed the mustangs. And by 1950, the BLM was claiming they'd removed over 100,000 horses from the range. Which is roughly where the middle-aged secretary from a hardscrabble ranch in Nevada stepped in. By the time she died in 1977, she'd gone from an independent operator whose first forays into saving the mustangs was to literally sabotage pens of miserable horses in the middle of the night and release them back into the wild, into a savvy political operator who used direct-mail campaigns and media sympathy to circumnavigate a hostile bureacracy. Her results - and her dogged determination to enforce the laws she got passed - would have been impressive for anyone; for a working-class woman struggling with physical pain, working a full-time job and caring for a sick husband, it was extraordinary.

The authors don't flinch from discussing Johnson's less attractive side. She's quite calculating about her depiction in Marguerite Henry's version of her story, Mustang: Wild Spirit Of The West, and she clashes with other mustang activists over the years. Worse, she essentially steals the work of a rancher named Gus Bundy, whose spectacular photographs of mustangs being chased by airplanes in a 1951 roundup were repeatedly used by Johnston without credit or payment. As the authors point out, she worked for a businessman for most of her adult life and she certainly knew a few things about copyright.

For anyone who read the Henry fictionalization of Johnson's life and work, some of the most interesting sections here are chapters 9 and 10, which focus on the relationship between the writer and her subject. Henry was already famous for her children's horse books when she began the project and Velma grew to like both the personable author and the cachet of being associated with her. Marguerite Henry employed her usual folksy style to make a kinder, cuddlier - and considerably less aggressive - Velma. Her family is made more of a rural sterotype, people who can't string three words together without uttering some pithy bit of down home wisdom. Her husband Charlie is transformed from a loving but wordly roughneck 13 years older than her to a sweet neighbor boy named Charley. Velma's disfigurement is only hinted at, her job is downplayed, and altogether she's made over into a simple, happy young wife who stumbles across a brutal injustice and fights back successfully using right as her shield. The simplification is understandable, but I never found Henry's version as satisfying as her other, equally folksy books. Maybe it was the serious content - there's something about those gruff and lovable poor folk that doesn't quite gell with slaughtered horses and trips to Congress.

The writing style is clear and the research was thorough and honest. Cruise and Griffiths make a big story thorough and enjoyable, and while Wild Horse Annie doesn't have the power or lyricism of a great work of nonfiction, it easily surpasses most of the competition.


Simon & Schuster

Find A Grave

Running Wild (1973) at IMDB (movie based on Velma's life)

Bureau of Land Management Environmental Education Resource

Time Magazine - July 27, 1959 article

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The 2010 World Equestrian Games

Because I am still finishing my review of Wild Horse Annie, a not-quite-review; news, some nice photos from the chock-full-o-photos book Show Jumping, by Pamela Macgregor-Morris, and a little list of interesting contests related to the World Equestrian Games in September.

Bruce Davidson on Irish Cap at the 1974 World Three Day Event Championship at Burghley, UK. The photo is from the book Show Jumping, by Pamela Macgregor-Morris.

September 25, 2010 kicks off the first World Equestrian Games to be held in the United States. In what appears to be an effort to convince the Europeans to never repeat this experiment, officials have scheduled Wynonna Judd to sing My Old Kentucky Home at the opening ceremony. It's not that I don't like reining or country music - wait, I don't like country music - but do we always have to play the yokel card? Remember those cheerleaders and supersized pick-up trucks at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics? Everyone north of the Mason-Dixon line simultaneously wished we'd lost the Civil War. But I digress.

The World Equestrian Games began in 1990, bringing together the championships for six major equine disciplines. In 2010, the championships include those for jumping, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, vaulting and reining.

And ways you can get there without selling your firstborn:

Volunteer - The American Morgan Horse Association (AMHA)'s exhibit at the WEG is looking for helpers. Quite a gig, you need to be available for the 16 days of the WEG and pass a Homeland Security clearance.

Get lucky - UK
Win a trip from Bailey's Feed/Horse & Hound (UK residents)

Get lucky - US
Win a trip from Farnam (US residents)
Win a trip from Ariat (deadline May 16)
Win a trip from Southern States (US residents) (deadline June 30)

Or just stay home and hold your commemorative medallion
Win official WEG medallions at The Horse Radio Network

Hans Winkler on Halla at the Show Jumping World Championships at Aachen in 1955. He won the gold for the second year in a row, returning the event to Aachen. The photo is from the book Show Jumping, by Pamela Macgregor-Morris.

Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games
Bruce Davidson Eventing
Jane Badger Books - Pamela Macgregor-Morris's pony books

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

In celebration of mothers, a couple of quick news items on famous broodmares, and then a semi-review of not a book but the successful publishing saga of the Little Golden Books, illustrated by a painting of a mare and foal.

Back in April, The Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Inc. named the 14-year-old mare Sweet Life the 2009 Broodmare Of The Year. Sweet Life is the dam of Sweet Catomine (2004 Champion Two-Year-Old Filly and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies) and Life Is Sweet (2009 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic).

The 1996 Broodmare of the Year died in April. Personal Ensign (1984, bay) came back from a fractured leg at two to beat the Kentucky Derby filly Winning Colors at the Breeders' Cup Distaff in 1988. As a broodmare, she produced several winning racehorses, including the filly My Flag, who in 1995 took the same race her mother won in 1988 and who later produced yet another Breeders' Cup race winner, Storm Flag Flying.

Thoroughbred Times - Sweet Life Named Broodmare Of The Year
The Lady Is A Champ - Ron Hale, 1988 NYT

Horses, Little Golden Book #459
Blanche Chenery Perrin, il. Hamilton Greene
1962, Golden Press

This was one of my earliest horse books, a thin little non-fiction book for very young readers and the lush illustrations (unfortunately somewhat washed out in the above photo, which was not the fault of the book but a result of my own ineptitude) probably helped make me a horse nut. The cover to my battered and loved-half-to-death copy went missing years and year ago, so all I can offer is a link - here's one on eBay.

Little Golden Books are small, square easy reader books designed to be sturdy and affordable, and they have been the very first books for several generations of Americans. They encompass an array of topics, from nursery rhymes to Disney movies, and have attracted some of the best children's authors and illustrators. There are over 1200 titles, and over 2 billion books have been printed. There are also larger books called, appropriately, Big Golden Books, which are basically over-sized versions, and as Golden did many books based on TV series and films, there are several horsey titles related to 1950's Westerns.

Blanche Chenery Perrin, of course, is the author of three children's horse books - Born To Race, Hundred Horse Farm and Thudding Hoofs - as well as another Little Golden Book, The New Pony.

Hamilton Greene also illustrated the Little Golden Books Walt Disney's Tonka and Zorro And The Secret Plan.

Horse-related Little Golden Books
Snowy, The Little White Horse (1962, Suzanne Reynolds, a Big Golden Book)
The New Pony (LGB #410, 1961, Blanche Chenery Perrin, il. Dagmar Wilson)
A Pony For Tony (#354, William P. Gottlieb, photos)
Little Benny Wanted A Pony (1950, #97, written by Oliver O'Conner Barrett, il. Richard Scarry
Baby Farm Animals (1958, il. Garth Williams)
Indian Indian (#149, 1952, Charlotte Zolotow)

From television and film
Walt Disney's Tonka (1959, Elizabeth Beecher, il. Hamilton Greene, with photos from TV series)
The Lone Ranger And The Talking Pony
Mister Ed, The Talking Horse (1962, Barbara Shook Hazen, il. Mel Crawford)
Fury Takes The Jump (1958, Seymour Reit)
Roy Rogers And The Indian Sign (1956)
Annie Oakley, Sharpshooter (Charles Verral, il. E. Joseph Dreany)
Annie Oakley And The Rustlers (Ann McGovern, il. Mel Crawford)
Gene Autry (#230)
Zorro And The Secret Plan (1958, Charles Spain Verral, Hamilton Greene)
National Velvet (1961, Kathryn White, il. Mel Crawford)
Walt Disney Presents The Story Of Black Beauty (1973)

Little Gray Donkey (#129, 1954, Alice Lunt, il. Tibor Gergely)
The Christmas Donkey (T. William Taylor, il. Andrea Brooks)
Manni The Donkey (1942, based on Felix Salten's A Forest World, author Emily Broun, il. Disney)

Publisher History
Little Golden Books was created in 1942 by a collaboration between publishers Simon & Schuster and Artists And Writers Guild, Inc., an arm of the printer/publisher Western Publishing and Lithographing. In 1958, Western and Pocket Books bought out S&S, and launched the subsidiary Golden Press. In 1978 Western, now called Western Publishing and a 20-year operator of a game division, was acquired by Mattel, Inc. In 1984, the failing but largely debt-free company was sold again, this time to a collection of senior executives led by a real estate mogul. In 1986, the company went public. Western thrived until 1993, when it became a decline blamed on financial mismanagement and a policy of creating a backlog of titles. Around 1994, they sold their school book club business to Troll (featured in the previous review) and in 1996 former Simon & Schuster CEO Richard Snyder and media mogul Barry Diller bought a controlling interest in the company and renamed it Golden Books Family Entertainment, Inc. Despite extensive and aggressive restructuring and pursuit of new markets, the company began to struggle in 1998. Random House bought the book publishing business in 2001, while Classic Media bought the licensing and merchandising right and TV/movie/video business.

Golden Press released a history of its most famous product in 2007, Golden Legacy by Leonard S. Marcus. There also appears to be an Australian connection in Golden Press - Sydney. It seems that several titles belonged exclusively to the Australian division, including Walt Disney Presents The Story Of Black Beauty.

Random House - Little Golden Books
Funding Universe - company history through 1999
CNN - Poky Little $84 M Deal
Collecting Little Golden Books website

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Derby, Rachel, Badminton and oh, right, a horse book - Pretty Penny Farm (1987)

Calvin Borel takes a third Derby aboard Super Saver in yet another Kentucky Derby I forgot to watch (most years I completely forget until, oh, 8pm) The horse will run in the next race of the long-idle Triple Crown, Baltimore's Preakness Stakes, on May 15th, and I will remember that if only because NBC will broadcast a 90-minute look at the 2010 Rolex **** immediately before their Preakness coverage. So the Rolex program starts at 3pm, then they switch over to the Preakness at 4:30. Assuming the inevitable hockey playoff game doesn't go over. Which it will. NBC has a nice incentive to renew the Derby broadcast contract, which expires this year - the 2010 had the most viewers in 21 years. Just not me.

In other interesting racing news, the 2009 Horse Of The Year took a second loss last Friday. Rachel Alexandra lost the La Troienne (formerly the Louisville Distaff Stakes; the original La Troienne was renamed the Eight Belles Stakes in 2009) to Unrivaled Belle. She was second to Zardana in the March 13 New Orleans Ladies. Meanwhile, the Eight Belles Stakes was won by a filly whose name rivals the Derby winner's - Buckleupbuttercup. The Kentucky Oaks - the Derby for fillies, essentially - went to Blind Luck.

In other eventing news, Paul Tapner and Inonothing won the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trialslast weekend; Oliver Townend, who had the ugly fall at Rolex, is reportedly recovering from a cracked collarbone, sternum and ribs; and here in New Jersey, the Jersey Fresh 3-star and 2-star events begin on Thursday, May 6.

Horse Channel on NBC's Preakness and Rolex coverage
Baltimore Sun - Super Saver Headed On To Preakness
New York Times - Blind Luck Wins Kentucky Oaks By A Nose
Pedigree Query on Super Saver
WinStar Farm LLC
Todd Pletcher Racing Stables
Badminton Horse Trials
Jersey Fresh CCI
Horse Park of New Jersey

And because I realize that the whole news aspect of this blog is rather beside the point, if not actually suspect, a review of an actual horse book. Nice painting (can't find artist) but oh, the nostalgia of those superlong eighties polos.

Pretty Penny Farm

Joanne Hoppe

1987, Troll Books

"She's a creep! Sophie Chmielewski is a fat slob, that's what! Bouncing boobs! That's her nickname. Bouncing boobs!" Beth's voice rose higher and higher. "What are you trying to do to me? Everybody makes fun of her. I'll be the laughingstock of the school!"

15-year-old Beth Bridgewater does not react well to the news that her mother has not only arranged for them to spend the summer in New Hampshire on a farm, far from Beth's sleek crew of mean girls, she's also arranged for the queen bees' main target to join them there. Beth's a coward, a sidekick who frequently congratulates herself for being silently 'uncomfortable' with the way pals Amy and Tory treat Sophie, but she has no intention of joining the fat girl on the hot seat. And she knows very well what her "friends" will make of her spending time with the outcast. Parental plans prevail, however, sweetened with the promise that Beth, who loves to ride, can rent a horse for the whole summer.

Let's recap. Beth pulls a Grade A meltdown and says ugly, vicious things about a classmate while screaming like a banshee at her parents, and is rewarded with a horse.

Ah, for parents like that. Back to the plot.

At the farm, Beth falls immediately for a spirited chestnut Thoroughbred whose owner Dave, the secretive college-aged son of the farm owner, reluctantly agrees to let her have him for the summer. Sophie, who Beth is pointedly ignoring, hesitantly agrees to use the quiet mare Dolly.

Charmin' tossed his head, putting pressure on the bit. He did a little sideways dance as she kept him in check. "Wanta run, don't you, boy?" His energy seemed to flow into her knees as she tightened them against him. "Go on, then." She tried to ease him into a canter, but he quickly broke from it and they pounded up the gentle incline. The horse took great bounding leaps into the air. Exhilerated, she crouched lower in the saddle, her heart thudding against his neck as he gathered speed. With so much power under her, she was on the edge of control.

This little 'canter' turns into a chance for Beth to ride Charmin' at the local racetrack, where a high school friend of Dave's is preparing a filly for a race. She has a ball, but when Dave finds out he's angry. In fact, he's unusually angry every time someone mentions how fast Charmin' is, and he becomes downright prickly whenever anyone mentions how odd it is that Dave won the horse in a bet during his first semester at the University of Virginia - and that the horse's former owner, a wealthy family of racehorse breeders, gave him up. It becomes pretty clear where that plot is headed.

Meanwhile, Beth is slowly, reluctantly and with maximum nastiness coming to appreciate that Sophie is - wait for it - human too. Beth suspiciously listens as her mother draws the uneasy fat girl into revealing that her mother is dead, that they used to live in a friendly Polish-American neighborhood, that her and her father are very close, etc. Could it be that this freakish girl could be more than the sum of her 30 extra pounds? Really, Beth actually calculates how much excess fat Sophie's carrying around, and likens it to a toddler or 6 bags of sugar. Luckily for Beth's growth as a human, she does finally break down and befriend the fat girl, who accepts her overtures with a grace that seems either mentally lacking or superhuman, considering their prior relationship. Together, they break the case of Why Is Dave So Cranky All The Time? and Why Is Charmin' So Freaky Fast If His Racehorse Breeder Owners Gambled Him Away?

A pretty cover, but a disappointing book. The action scenes are not bad, the atmosphere is workable, the main character is certainly strong (if repulsive) but it just doesn't work out. Too many odd bits of dialogue interupt the action, and far too many minor characters clutter the stage. Charmin' is limited to being a plot device, and Sophie isn't even given that much respect; she's treated as a vehicle for Beth's personal growth, meekly acquiescing to her hosts' decision to put her on a diet and even change her name.

Horse oddities - it seems odd that nobody questions handing a 15-year-old kid a young Thoroughbred stallion as a pet.


I googled "Chmielewski" and discovered it means, basically, 'one from the place of the hops.' Interesting, given that the author's name is Hoppe.


Dolly - bay mare

Charmin' - chestnut stallion with blaze

Josie's Babe - racehorse


Hoppe wrote only four books, all teen thrillers. Only Pretty Penny Farm has a horse aspect.

Dream Spinner

The Lesson Is Murder

April Spell


Joanne Hoppe died in 2001. She was an English teacher in Greenwich, CT for 21 years.


Troll was established in 1958, based in NJ. The once healthy company entered a fatal run through a series of buyers starting in 1995, when Penguin parent company Pearson bought 49%. At some point it became Troll Communications. Canadian megacompany Torstar Corporation bought it in 1997, and it went to private equity firm Willis Stein in 1999. They sold the company's book fair operation, once a rival to Scholastic's, to Scholastic in 2001. The remainder was sold to a private equity fund, Quad Venture Partners LLC in 2002. Troll filed for bankruptcy in 2003, owning over $3 million to its printer.