By Doris Degner-Foster
During the Christmas season of 1967, Elvis Presley — the King of Rock and Roll — presented his beautiful, glamorous wife, Priscilla, with a gift that would change not only their lives forever, but also the lives of many others. It wasn’t a present wrapped in a bow or tucked under a tree, but instead haltered and led to the doorstep of Graceland, the Presleys’ estate in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis’s gift to Priscilla was a stunning black Quarter Horse named Domino. You could say it was love at first sight, as that momentous day sparked Elvis and Priscilla’s passion for horses and Priscilla’s eventual fight for the lives of the animals she has come to love so much.
Priscilla is quick to remember that fateful day at Graceland when Elvis presented her with a horse. “It was an absolute surprise!” she said. “Elvis was gone for part of the day and I didn’t know where. A couple of hours later he came to me and said, ‘I want you to come outside, I have something for you.’”
It turned out to be a present that would change the face — and the fields — of Graceland. “I had no idea what he was up to and I walked outside and there was this beautiful 4-year-old Quarter Horse. He already came with a name: Domino, which I loved. I got right on him and started riding around and the rest is kind of history.”
Priscilla’s love for Domino was contagious and soon Elvis caught the horse bug. “Elvis would watch me ride my horse in the mornings and [when he saw] how much fun I was having, he bought a horse for himself that he called Rising Sun,” Priscilla said.
A Growing Passion
More horses were added to the Graceland herd so that friends and family could join them. Priscilla recalled, “It became a bit of a labor of passion and fun, having our whole clan together enjoying a day of horseback riding.”
While Elvis was known for his passion for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, it was clear to Pricilla and everyone who knew the King that he equally enjoyed the four-legged type of horsepower. “With Elvis, it was one of the most enjoyable hobbies and loves that he had at Graceland,” Priscilla said, adding that when she drives past the pastures of Graceland, she adores her memories of riding alongside Elvis.
Elvis and Priscilla’s interest in horses was deepened when they saw a Tennessee Walking Horse World Champion named Carbon Copy, a pitch-black horse with an unforgettable presence. The horse inspired Elvis to buy a black Tennessee Walking Horse for himself that he named Bear. Priscilla fondly remembers that Elvis would dress for whichever horse he was riding, wearing boots and chaps to ride his Quarter Horse, Rising Sun, and dressing in a suit to ride the Walking Horse, Bear.
Priscilla recalls that their Walking Horses were shod naturally, without pads on their front feet like a show horse. Elvis would ride down to the fence line of Graceland that borders the road, and people would stop their cars to watch. “He would show the fans the beautiful gait that he loved; it was so smooth and pleasant,” she said. “Elvis was an entertainer and he loved to show his horses to his fans.”
A Disheartening Realization
Priscilla explained that although they both fell in love with the Tennessee Walking Horse breed, they didn’t know much about them in the show world. “We knew a little bit of the lingo, but we didn’t know what went on behind the scenes,” she said. “We were very naive in thinking that’s just the way these horses were. We were novice horse owners.”
The last horse that Elvis bought in 1975 was a 2-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse named Ebony’s Double. Horse trainer Howard Hamilton became aware of the horse and asked to show him in the Walking Horse industry’s big annual show, the Celebration. Priscilla explained that the trainer told her that although Ebony’s Double wasn’t a champion show horse, because this was the last horse Elvis bought, he wanted to present the horse at the show and do a retirement ceremony.
During the Grand Champion awards, Priscilla awarded the Graceland Challenge trophy that she had donated. She thought the trophy was to be a one-time award, but found out later that it had been given to the Champion Tennessee Walking Horse at the Celebration show every year since.
Priscilla initially felt honored to present the Graceland Challenge Trophy, but two years ago she was made aware of a practice within the Walking Horse show world that made her embarrassed to be associated with the industry. That practice is soring, defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association as: The unethical and illegal practice of deliberately inflicting pain to exaggerate the leg motion of horses to gain an unfair advantage in the show ring.
Soring is used as a method to achieve the chest-high walk that impresses the crowds at the shows and wins awards. The chest-high stride achieved by soring is known in the industry as the “Big Lick.”
Shaking Things Up
Concerned about having Graceland and Elvis’ name associated with an abusive treatment of horses, Priscilla called the Tennessee Walking Horse Association CEO, Mike Inman, and asked for the Graceland Challenge Trophy to be returned to Graceland. She was unhappy with his response and felt that he wasn’t taking her seriously, but after an hour on the phone he finally agreed to return the trophy.
“He was trying to convince me that the information I got about the industry and the tactics that were used [were not correct],” Priscilla said. “I listened to him, but I do know the facts and I’ve talked to people who have Tennessee Walking Horses who say it definitely still goes on to this day.”
One of those people is Bill Harlin, of Harlinsdale Farm in Tennessee, home of two-time World Grand Champion horse Midnight Sun. He has spoken of trainers soring horses in the past to be successful in the show ring and says that the pads, chains and caustic chemicals to achieve the signature Big Lick is wrong and efforts to stop it are not working. He expressed concern that Tennessee is getting a reputation as a horse abuse state and that it is killing the Walking Horse industry.
Priscilla said, “I want to see soring become a part of Tennessee’s past, and the only way is for Congress to pass the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, the PAST Act.”
The act is House Resolution number 1518, sponsored by U.S. Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY). It would ban soring and the use of pads and chains placed around horses’ front ankles that are used to achieve the exaggerated Big Lick show gait. Priscilla has spoken to a number of Senators and Congressmen, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, about her support of the PAST act.
Rep. Whitfield has said the PAST Act would strengthen the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970, which initially gave responsibility of enforcing humane treatment of show horses to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, the HPA lost its effectiveness when an amendment to the act in 1976 established a program that allowed the industry to police itself. The PAST Act will ban the devices involved in the soring process, increase penalties for violations, and eliminate the failed industry self-policing system. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General recommended these changes after an audit in 2010.
In response to the PAST act, Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has proposed House Resolution 4098, which consolidates the self-policing system into one entity that gives great consideration to the Walking Horse Trainers Association, whose board of directors has more than 100 violations of the HPA. Her legislation does not eliminate pads and chains. Rep. Blackburn has said banning pads and chains will cause economic damage by killing off the Walking Horse industry’s flashy performance show classes, which are “one of Tennessee’s most treasured traditions.”
Her views are directly opposite to breeder and owner Bill Harlin, who believes the practice is actually killing the Walking Horse industry. He cites the facts of a decline of over 15,000 Tennessee Walking Horses registered in 2000 to a mere 3,350 in 2010.
Members of other show horse breeds say keeping the Big Lick is hurting everyone. Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, said his group supports Whitfield’s bill in part because public backlash over high-stepping Walking Horses has started to have an effect on other show breeds with an animated gait and that the public can’t tell the difference.
Priscilla is disappointed and frustrated because there hasn’t yet been a vote on the act. “We have 305 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. How much more do they want?”
Statement on Soring
The sponsor of the PAST act, Representative Ed Whitfield, issued the following statement on July 31, 2014:
“I regret to inform you that Speaker of the House, John Boehner, currently refuses to bring the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act to the floor for a vote. His decision is inconsistent with leadership’s stated preference for adhering to regular order. Furthermore, it is too late in the year to resort to a discharge petition according to House rules.
“I am sad that a bill which 70 percent of the House of Representatives support, including 115 Republicans, can’t be brought to a vote. I am particularly frustrated because many horses will continue to be abused on a daily basis, unless the PAST Act becomes law.”
There have been thousands of sound horse advocates as well as numerous groups such as the American Horse Council, American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, National Sheriffs Association, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and the veterinary medical associations from 50 states that have helped create vast support for this bill.
“I will not give up,” said Priscilla. “I remain dedicated to ending the rampant practice of soring and I encourage everyone to ramp up their efforts to do the same.”
While the PAST Act is temporarily stalled, Priscilla is doing what she can to help horses at risk and encourages Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to step up and end more than half a century of horse abuse by moving the PAST Act to the Floor for a vote.
A Safe Haven For Rescues
For the past six years, the Graceland stables have been a haven to rescue horses. “Our stable is not that big; we only have eight stalls and our stable is full. I’m doing what I can to get the message out to rescue,” Priscilla said.
Fans will be happy to know that there are tours of the Graceland stables. “We have tours only on certain months because sometimes it’s way too hot,” Priscilla said. “We love the people coming, they love that tour so much.”
Priscilla added, “We have a Tennessee Walking Horse here that has scars on his legs. Our horse manager, Alene Alexander, tends to his legs, constantly making sure he is not in pain and helps him on days he’s not doing that well. She has done amazing work with him. Alene has been with us since we first opened Graceland. We have another horse that was rescued the day before [he would have been] slaughtered.”
There have been many offers of gifts of horses, especially from those longing to see a palomino and a black Quarter Horse present again at Graceland — like those once ridden by Elvis and Priscilla. “We were offered a beautiful champion palomino as a gift, but I feel that that horse has a home already,” Priscilla said. She wants to save space for horses in need of rescuing.
“Horses were a big part of Elvis’s life,” Priscilla said. “Having horses roam the property of Graceland and living a good life was a sight he enjoyed. We are keeping his legacy alive for others to enjoy as well when they come to visit his home, Graceland.”
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she is not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She enjoys writing fiction and is working on a murder mystery where a horse appears in different people’s lives to help them through a crisis. Look for Doris’s blog, Notes From the Field on the Sidelines Magazine website.