I have always loved animals, but my passion for horses all started when Elvis surprised me with a 4-year- old black quarter horse named Domino for Christmas in 1967. I would ride every day, with Elvis watching from his upstairs office window at Graceland. Soon after that, we visited a beautiful farm in Collierville, Tennessee, where the owner, George Lennox, showed Elvis his grand-champion Tennessee walking horse, Carbon Copy. Elvis thought he was the most beautiful horse he’d ever seen, and we both fell in love with the breed.
Bear was the first Tennessee walking horse Elvis owned. The last was Ebony’s Double, purchased in 1975. Although he never competed, a special retirement ceremony was held for Ebony’s Double at the industry’s biggest event, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. I presented a trophy on behalf of Graceland. While I had a deep appreciation for the horses’ beauty and grace, I must admit that Elvis and I didn’t know much about what went on behind the scenes in the Tennessee walking horse show world. We naively believed that the exaggerated, high-stepping gait was the way the horses naturally moved. It wasn’t until years later that I would find out the truth.
What I learned was that trainers use an array of terribly cruel methods to force the horses to perform what’s known as the “big lick” gait. The practice, called “soring,” involves putting caustic chemicals on a horse’s legs to burn them and using other pain-inducing devices to cause the horse to lift its step to an exaggerated height—all to win a blue ribbon, a silver tray, money, or, mostly, ego. In short, sored horses spend their show careers in excruciating pain—all so their trainers can gain an unfair advantage in the show ring.
Once I became aware of this cruelty, I was horrified and embarrassed to be associated with the industry. I still own Tennessee walking horses and knew that I had to speak up on their behalf. The first thing I did was request that the Graceland trophy be returned by the Celebration.
Then I traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to pass legislation to protect horses from soring. The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act would bolster the existing Horse Protection Act of 1970, which made it illegal for trainers to transport or show sored horses. The PAST Act would ban soring outright as well as outlaw the devices involved in soring and increase the penalties, which still remain little more than the cost of doing business.
Although the PAST Act did not pass through Congress last year, it gained the co- sponsorship of the majority of both houses—an unusual feat for any piece of federal legislation. I will continue to push legislators to make this bill a priority in the new session. It’s critical for the horses I hold so dear.
For the past six years, the Graceland stables have been a haven to rescued horses. We have a Tennessee walking horse who has scars on his legs—likely from soring. Our horse manager tends to his legs, making sure he is not in any pain. We have another horse that was rescued the day before he would have been slaughtered.
While the big-lick industry has cast an ugly shadow over the entire breed, we must remember that the Tennessee walking horse’s original gait—the natural running walk—is revered by many who treat their horses humanely, and it is something to celebrate. I want to see soring become a part of Tennessee’s past, not this breed. Walking horses are a captivating symbol of our state—just as Graceland and Elvis continue to be.
Just after publication of this story, Priscilla Presley was named Humane Horsewoman of the Year by The Humane Society of the United States at a ceremony held during the Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida. Each year, The HSUS offers the award to an individual who demonstrates an outstanding commitment to protect America’s equines.