Few outside his innermost circle knew the King had a heart for horses.
The world knew Elvis for his music, his movies, and even for his motorcycles. People close to him knew him for his love of horses. A rich part of his personal life that largely escaped public view, his equine devotion opened to the world in 2009 when the stables at Graceland opened to the public in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Actually, Elvis was a little bit afraid of horses at first because of something that happened on a movie set,” says Alene Alexander, Graceland’s stable supervisor. She’s referring to the time a horse ran away with the actor during production of Flaming Star, in which Elvis plays Pacer Burton, the son of a Kiowa mother and Texas rancher father who ends up caught between both worlds. But after buying wife Priscilla a black quarter horse named Domino, Elvis had a change of heart about riding.
“After he saw Priscilla ride, he became interested in owning a horse,” says Alexander, a former schoolteacher who has become the King’s de facto equine historian after 30 years at Graceland. Not just any horse — he had to have a golden palomino. “He would take the guys [in his entourage] and Priscilla, and they would go out and literally knock on people’s doors who had horses, looking for a golden palomino.”
It was often 3 in the morning when he took those horse-hunting trips. “Elvis couldn’t travel during the day. If he did, the world would be following him. ... His father [Vernon] had a house back here that was real close to the stables, so they put a gate from the stable into Vernon’s carport so Elvis could zoom out there and go out into the neighborhood to escape. But if they really wanted to get him out of here, they would send a limousine out the front gate and an old beat-up truck out the gate back by the barn. Elvis would be in that old beat-up truck, but the world would be following the limousine.”
When Elvis finally found the registered American Quarter Horse he’d envisioned, he renamed the golden palomino Rising Sun. Graceland’s barn soon bore a sign: The House of Rising Sun. “We have great film footage of Elvis on that horse,” Alexander says. “He loved that horse, groomed that horse, and came back to the barn by himself and just hung out with the horse.”
Elvis was known to sometimes ride the palomino to the famous white gates of his Memphis mansion to sign autographs, but Rising Sun was oblivious to the superstar’s fame. “I’ve always said that Rising Sun was probably the only animal that really knew Elvis Presley the man, because the horse didn’t know he could sing, never knew him in a jumpsuit, and never went to a concert,” Alexander recalls. “All he wanted was to love Elvis and give his time.”
According to Priscilla, Elvis was so passionate about Rising Sun that he would ride 15 minutes and walk him for an hour for fear he didn’t have him cooled out. “Everybody would go, ‘E, bring the horse back to the barn,’ and he’d go, ‘No, he’s not ready.’ Priscilla said he would just walk and walk and walk to be sure he hadn’t harmed that animal in any way.”
Horses also brought out Elvis’ characteristic extravagance. “Priscilla said after Elvis got a horse, he felt like everyone else ought to have a horse, so he went out and bought everybody a horse — even the wives of the guys in his entourage. Then everyone had to have a saddle. Well, if you have a horse and you have a saddle, you have to have some way to get the saddle to the horse, so he bought everybody a pickup truck.”
“It didn’t matter whether they knew how to ride or even liked horses — you were getting a horse,” Priscilla has said. The generosity wasn’t just for show, though, and at least some of the guys actually rode with Elvis, which Alexander discovered when she asked relatives about shards of broken glass she kept seeing in the pasture at Graceland after it rained. “Elvis and the guys would saddle up and put on their six-shooters and ride out into the pasture shooting bottles and cans off the fence posts.”
At one point, there were 18 (or thereabouts) horses living on Graceland’s almost 14 acres, a quarter of which was occupied by the mansion alone. Eventually, Elvis had to buy another property to be able to keep the horses, acquiring the 163-acre Circle G (named in honor of Graceland) cattle ranch in 1967 when the herd outgrew his mansion’s grounds. Lo-cated across the state line in Walls, Mississippi, the Circle G became a fun-filled escape for friends and family. (The ranch was sold and horses returned to Graceland just before Elvis and Priscilla’s daughter, Lisa Marie, was born.)
Going to the stable helped Elvis decompress. “That’s where he finally got to get away and be himself,” Alexander says. “Of course, everybody thinks that because of who he was, Elvis would have his own groom and somebody to clean his tack, but he did all that himself.” There are still physical reminders of Elvis’ hours of hands-on involvement in the barn and tack room. Although the horse names that he wrote on the stall doors have been painted over, a few of his notations still remain.
“The funniest thing was a place on the wall where it said ‘EP’ and right next to it said ‘Priscilla,’ but Priscilla’s name had been crossed out,” Alexander says. “The ‘E’ had been turned into a box and the ‘P’ on ‘EP’ was now Priscilla. I had to get Priscilla to tell me what this meant.”
The reason was simple: Elvis had bought himself a gaited horse named Bear and wanted to hang his tack next to Rising Sun’s, so Priscilla’s had to move. “We just treasure that red Magic Marker writing in the tack room because if you know Elvis Presley’s autograph, then you know that is his handwriting. He labeled places for ropes and the hackamores and all that stuff. And there’s a note on the wall that says ‘Don’t move this TV. ’ That’s in the tack room, too.”
According to Priscilla, Elvis always wore jeans to work in the barn, but when he headed out on horseback, he dressed for the occasion. Whether in chaps and a cowboy hat or white dress slacks and a blue puff-sleeved shirt, Elvis couldn’t resist a photo op. Priscilla says his favorite thing was to ride close to the wall at the front of Graceland so that people could watch him canter by.
Alexander knows all of Graceland’s details to the letter for good reason. She was hired as a tour guide when Elvis’ Memphis mansion first opened to visitors in 1982. She had recently sold her own world champion show horse and figured she was out of the horse business, but the lifelong Elvis fan’s curiosity about horses at Graceland proved fortuitous. “I looked out across the pasture and there were five horses that were left behind — five that Elvis Presley selected, bought, and rode, including his favorite, Rising Sun.”
Alexander ignored the rules and went back to the barn on her own. Seeing that the horses had health issues, Alexander went directly to Graceland’s CEO with her findings — and her personal horse credentials. “They were not horse people and did not have horse knowledge,” she recalls. It had been assumed that the horses were just old, but Alexander informed them otherwise and got immediate money, management support, and veterinary assistance to return all five horses to good health.
Part of the group Alexander rehabilitated was the last horse Elvis bought, Ebony’s Double, who caught the attention of some Tennessee Walking Horse people while they were touring Graceland. “They quickly wanted to extend a retirement ceremony to that horse,” Alexander says. Even with her competition background, readying a horse that hadn’t been ridden for years for an exhibition in front of 40,000 people seemed too challenging. But at Priscilla’s request, Alexander climbed back into the saddle to exhibit Ebony’s Double at his retirement ceremony.
“That horse passed away in 2005 at age 32. We are known for keeping horses around Graceland a long time. The famous horse Mare Ingram that Elvis named for the mayor of Memphis — she lived to be 50 years old! All the other horses have been in their 30s. There have been horses here at Graceland since, and I guess there will always be. Our program now will be to give rescue horses a home.”
Today, in addition to stand-ins for Priscilla’s horse, Domino, and Elvis’ favorite, Rising Sun, there are two rescue horses living at Graceland. None of the resident horses are ridden, nor do they stay outside during inclement weather. All of them are meticulously maintained by a staff of three (including Alexander). “Groomed and cared for like world champion stud horses, and then they go right out to pasture to play,” Alexander says.
Which is just how Elvis would have wanted it.
“Priscilla says he used to look out his office window or his bedroom window upstairs and watch the horses play. She says there will always be horses at Graceland because they were here when Elvis was.”
This year’s Elvis Week in Memphis will mark the 40th anniversary of Presley's passing. Find out more about Elvis Week here.
From the July 2012 issue.