From Victoria Racimo and Kimberly Gatto’s All the King’s Horses
Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the King of Rock-n-Roll’s death, author Kimberly Gatto and award winning director and actress Victoria Racimo have released a new book, All the King’s Horses, that reveals an untold side of Elvis—how it wasn’t his love of peanut butter and banana sandwiches that shaped the man, but rather his love of horses. These are 5 things you don’t know about Elvis’s secret equestrian side:
1. Elvis took his equestrian side to screen
Filming Love Me Tender with live animals was not without challenge for Elvis. As a novice-level horseman at that time, Elvis was still learning about the quirks and unpredictability of the large, majestic creatures weighing 1,000 pounds or more. Memorabilia collector Jim Curtin, who later became a friend to Elvis, recalled a particularly humbling experience for Elvis involving horses on the set of the film:
Elvis had to learn how to ride a horse like an expert for Love Me Tender. He told both his producer and director that he already knew how to ride and would be able to get through the scenes without looking foolish.
One scene required Elvis to ride his horse through grass and trees. When the test run for the shot went well, the director called for a real take. Elvis mounted and maneuvered his horse through the field just as he had before, and everything went smoothly until they neared some tree limbs. His horse stopped listening to commands and ran straight into the limbs. He slid from the horse and rolled over, landing several feet away.
Elvis got slowly to his feet and shook his head. When he took a step, he lost his balance. He walked slowly to his dressing room, dusting the dirt off his clothes. He was so embarrassed at being knocked off the horse that he slipped into the stables later that day, looked his horse square in the eye, and scolded him. The horse whinnied and snorted and pushed Elvis away with his head. Elvis was unaware that two crew members witnessed him scolding the animal. They laughed at the sight, and then went back and told everyone what they had seen. Elvis was embarrassed twice that day!
2. Elvis used farm life to unwind and let go of the stresses of stardom
Like any true horseman, Elvis would often retreat to the quietude of the barn, where he spent hours brushing and talking (and sometimes singing) to his horse. He enjoyed grooming the horse’s sleek golden coat and combing his silky white mane and tail. Elvis also cleaned and polished his own tack—which included the saddle, bridle, and bit—until it shined. When he rode, Elvis made sure to cool the horse out properly. Friends recall that he often took this to extremes, walking the horse for an hour when he had ridden for a mere fifteen minutes.
In his horse’s honor, Elvis named the Graceland Stable “House of Rising Sun” and carefully painted those words above the stable doors. He also had the horse’s name and likeness painted on the side of his white pickup truck. Elvis commissioned jeweler Sol Schwartz, of Schwartz & Ableser Jewelers of Beverly Hills, to create a special gold and diamond ring that featured a likeness of Rising Sun. The fourteen-karat gold ring included a horseshoe containing eighteen diamonds, with two additional diamonds as the horse’s eyes. The magnificence of the ring was a testament to Elvis’s love and admiration for his horse.
3. Elvis’ love for horses was contagious
“Elvis cast himself in the role of ranch foreman,” Joe Esposito later said. “Every morning he saddled Rising Sun and rode out to issue instructions to the contractor on how to do things and where everything should go.”
It was a time of great togetherness for Elvis and his friends. In addition to riding horses, they enjoyed potluck suppers, barbecues, and various games. When it snowed, they would ride around the vast property on tractors and sleds, and playful snowball fights often ensued. In the spring, they witnessed the miracle of birth when several new calves and foals were born. Elvis was closer to nature than he had ever been, and he was enjoying it wholeheartedly. The star’s happiness was reflected in his appearance and demeanor. According to some friends, at one point Elvis even let his hair go back to its natural sandy blond color.
“In becoming a ranch owner and turning the Memphis Mafia into a bunch of ranch hands,” said George Klein, “Elvis had given himself a tremendous challenge, which he threw himself into fully. Making plans for the ranch, Elvis seemed more energetic and in charge than he had [been] in a long time—and that rubbed off on all of us.”
4. Elvis didn’t mess around when it came to his horses’ well-being
Elvis loved his horses, and all animals, so much so that he ensured that they were always protected from harm. Larry Geller remembers an incident when a young, hotshot trainer was hired to assist with the animals. When one of the horses—a beautiful Appaloosa—began to rear up out of fear, the young man smacked the animal so violently that the horse lost its balance and fell to the ground. Elvis was so upset by this man’s treatment of the horse that he not only told the trainer to never lay his hands upon any of his animals again, but also made sure that the man was immediately fired from his job at Graceland.
Of course, Elvis’s deep, fun-loving sense of humor also made its way into the stables, as he always enjoyed playing practical jokes on others. In a televised interview with Stina Dabrowski, Elvis’s daughter Lisa remembered that her father once brought a pony into the house, much to the horror of his strict grandmother, Minnie May. Elvis also taught Rising Sun to drink Pepsi (the King’s favorite drink) from a can and occasionally fed the horse sugar cookies as a treat.
5. Elvis shared his love for horses with his adoring fans
Gary Pepper, a disabled man who became a close personal friend of Elvis’s, recalled that Elvis could often be seen during this time “riding the horses in the side lot and front grounds of Graceland putting on quite a show for everyone to see.” Pepper noted that many fans threw various objects over the stone wall for Elvis to sign as he was riding Sun near the front of the yard. Elvis graciously autographed the items and threw them back over the wall for the fans to retrieve.
According to Pepper’s account, on another occasion, Elvis rode down near the gates to find that at least 500 fans had congregated. A traffic jam began on the highway as folks slowed their cars down to get a glimpse of the King. “He rode his horse near the driveway and entrance to Graceland, looking over the crowd,” Pepper said, “And asked the gatekeeper to open the gates and let everyone in. He sat on his horse and signed autographs and allowed the fans to take photos and ask questions for about two and a half hours. Someone in the crowd asked him about his neck scarf and he took it off and threw it into the crowd. As you can imagine, there was quite a scramble and quite a few fans got a piece of it. Elvis finally got so hot and tired he said he would have to say goodbye to everyone. He continued to do the same thing each day for a week.” During the course of that afternoon, it is estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 people had made their way onto the Graceland grounds to watch Elvis ride.
Safe and secure on the back of his horse, Elvis was able to reconnect with a live audience. It was an experience that would transfer into his performances on stage.