Leon's Legacy: The Grant Sisters, the Only Trick Riders in the World

Along with their brother, the three Grant girls launched brilliant lives and careers inspired by lessons learned in rodeo.

“The Horse is our medicine and has helped us survive many hardships. They must be given respect and honored for their sacred place within the Creation, as they possess the same fundamental right to Life as we, Five-Fingered Ones do.” — Nahooka Dine', traditional Navajo medicine people

They were billed as The Grant Sisters, the Only Indian Trick Riders in the World, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were stars of the rodeo circuit, vivid athletic testaments to the profound Native understanding of horse, and rider, and grace. What is perhaps most remarkable is to understand that those glorious days were informed by what came before, and inspired their unique, accomplished lives that followed.

From their home in Chinle, Arizona on the Navajo Nation, the sisters—Ruth, Joy and Gloria—along with brother Mark, a champion bronc rider, became well known for their horsemanship. They worked hard in school, at home, in the arena and at rodeos, traveling as a family and meeting thousands of fans and friends. They performed at countless rodeos, parades and events throughout the country. They’d spend summers traveling up North to rodeos and performances, fulfilling contracts they made for trick-riding so they could buy school clothes, tack and gear. Their beautiful matching custom outfits were designed and sewn with loving hands by their mother, Sylvia. Meanwhile, they were still expected to study hard and get good grades to earn scholarships for college. Their parents and grandparents were major advocates of education, and all four of the siblings have master’s degrees in education or business.

On the day we interviewed in Gloria’s home nestled along the Rio Grande, two paint horses, Taz and Bentley, frolicked in the corral outside. The sisters speak humbly today about their sterling resumes and individual achievements, and family remains at the center of their lives. Their natural beauty and grace has transcended time, and they remain elegant, active and energetic about giving back to youth and community, even starting a new business, Painted Horses.

To them, though, without exception, the story they want to tell—their story—is about family, their father, and horses.

Teaching and Sharing

It’s been two years since renowned horseman and humanitarian Leon Mihio Grant, 90, walked on in January 2015, leaving a legacy of community service built on faith, love of family and lessons learned through a lifelong love of horses. That legacy—built with his Navajo wife, the late Sylvia Gorman Grant—lives on through Joy, Gloria, Ruth and Mark, his six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, many of whom continue to ride and own horses today.

A citizen of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska born into the Deer Clan, Grant is celebrated as a visionary who founded the Phoenix Indian Center in 1947 to help people migrating to the city find housing, jobs, education and emergency assistance. That was at the start of the Relocation Era, when local businesses were posting signs that read “Whites Only” and discrimination was the norm. The center became an intertribal gathering place where Indian people were welcomed with respect, kindness and kinship. A longtime rancher who raised Brangus cattle, sheep, horses, and 10 Dalmatians, all named Hugo, Grant also was one of four founding fathers of the All Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association. He was inducted into the Phoenix College Hall of Fame in 2013.

“He was one of those rare, original people you’re lucky to meet,” says actor and comedian Tatanka Means, the eldest of Gloria’s two sons with the late Russell Means. “My Dad and my Grandpa were the two main influential patriarchal pillars of my life. My Grandpa always encouraged education and consistency. He led by example and walked his talk. From a young age, I learned horsemanship and the responsibilities of caring for animals from him. He taught me how to catch a horse, create a trustful connection with a horse, and then trick-ride off of that horse.

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Barrel-racing horses Taz and Bentley showing some love to the Grant Sisters, who say horsemanship prepared them well for life's challenges.

“He was more than a horseman and a rancher. He was an Indian activist and civil rights leader for Native people without ever referring to himself that way. He would call out unfair racist business owners in border towns or blatant racist treatment, and sometimes even have to physically fight. He always stood up for his family and for Indian people no matter the cost, and he never backed down from a fight. He was a carrier of the Omaha language and teacher of the old Indian ways. He meant so much to me.”

It was their parents’ faith, dedication to education, and love of family that helped shape the Grant children into champions in saddle bronc, barrel racing, trick-riding and ultimately, in life, grounded in the values their parents lived by with spiritual connections to the land and animals.

“Our parents were always teaching and sharing with everyone,�� said Gloria. “They were humanitarians and wanted the best for our Navajo people. They taught us to love one another, to be helpful and to do our best at all times. They wanted us to be prayerful, humble and to know where we came from, and to teach our children this way, too.” Like her sisters, Gloria embraced the importance of education after her riding days, and went on to design Navajo curricula and serve as assistant superintendent of schools in Chinle.

Looking back on family trick-riding days, the hard work and discipline learned in a horse arena carried them over a lifetime, said Ruth Grant Bitsui, the youngest daughter whose early equine experience at sheep camp led to international trick-riding performances and a winning barrel-racing career that lasted more than 33 years. Bitsui, who earned an MBA from Northern Arizona University, enjoyed a 30-year career with Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, traveling the world as a cultural attache’ and rodeoing with her husband, veteran champion Edison Bitsui who owns Bitco Construction.

“I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have horses,” said Joy Grant Manus, the oldest of the siblings who is a retired school principal and teacher development specialist on the Navajo Nation. “From the time we were very little, we’d go visit our grandparents and ride with them when they were herding sheep. I’m still mesmerized by the smell of horses and leather. The corrals, saddles, blankets, bridles, and a sweaty horse are smells that make me feel like I am in a safe, comfortable place.”

They Sang for Horses

Their grandmother was one of 13 children from Salina Springs on the western portion of the Navajo Nation where water is life, trees are sparse, and fine brown sand blows hard each spring blinding livestock and eroding remaining grasslands. Their grandfather Nelson Gorman, Sr. owned several trading posts and a huge herd of sheep, numbering close to 1,000 animals. On the 25,000 square-mile Navajo Nation, horses were considered a blessing and sign of wealth, and were essential to herding flocks over high desert plateaus, canyons and open landscape in search of food and water.

According to the Dine’ origin story and ceremonial songs, the horse emerged from the most beautiful and powerful forces of nature. It is said that horses came from the sun itself and were brought to the earth’s surface by the Hero Twins. The names of the horses’ parts were given to the people for medicine rites by one of the Holy People, White Bead Woman. Horses are spiritual beings that bring good medicine to the land and people. As a culture that relies heavily on agriculture and livestock, horses were key to the evolution of Navajo society. Over time, rodeo and horse racing became popular events in the Southwest, and today thousands of Navajo families participate in rodeos. Dine’ cowboys and cowgirls are regularly among top contenders in national competitions.

Learning to Trick Ride

Though they’ve collectively owned more than 60 horses over the years, it was Watson, their grandfather’s sheepherding horse, who first taught them trust and confidence on horses. A gift from the in-laws, Watson was of no particular breed but was smart, patient and loyal. When their grandfather once took a bad fall, the horse stood by him for hours until family found them. Watson was nearly 20 years old when he passed, leaving big footprints to follow.

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Leon Grant lost his arm to a horse accident, then trained his four children to become trick-riding and rodeo champions.

“Watson was a big white horse, 15 hands tall, with grey points on his feet, tail and mane with the kindest eyes. All the grandchildren rode him and he let us. He was patient, hardworking and very careful with us,” Gloria recounted. “All three of us would pile on him and ride far out on the range with grandma and grandpa. At the end of day, even though Watson was tired, he’d diligently carry us all home. He took care of us, and as children our confidence was grounded in that horse. After we learned to ride well, we started trick-riding on Watson, not really knowing what we were doing, and—seeing our craziness and avid interest—my father decided to train us to become trick-riders.”

Trick-riding is not for the faint-of-heart. It requires great strength, agility and confidence to perform stunts while riding a fast-moving horse. The sisters had to master horsemanship skills, be in excellent shape and strong enough to perform the Ground, Strap and Saddle Tricks. Many of the stunts required sheer strength and no straps or gimmicks. The Grant sisters learned and performed 10 to 12 tricks and sometimes did Combination Tricks, using two or three in quick succession.

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Ruth doing the Liberty Stand.

The real key to trick and fancy-riding is a solid, well-trained horse. This requires a trainer with the skills of a "horse whisperer,” someone with innate intuition who can gain a horse’s trust and control it using voice and hand motions. That was Leon Grant. He’d been a champion saddle bronc rider in his youth, but lost his right hand to a horse accident when he was only 21. Nonetheless, he trained more than eight horses for trick-riding, mostly paints, and not once did they spook, buck or run away during a performance.

“Dad prayed for the horses and for us all of the time,” Gloria said. “Sometimes I think that yes, he lost his good right hand to a horse accident, but God gave him a beautiful gift in return, and that was to train us and our horses. We were fortunate and never had an accident under our father’s tutelage.”

For Joy Manus, training to be a trick-rider was not easy. “I was about eight then, but I was not limber enough and it was frightening to do these tricks while the horse ran. My dad never forced me to do the tricks, he only encouraged me. It was hard! He was probably disappointed that I didn’t try harder at some daring and dangerous tricks, but what I ended up doing was being the lead rider. I loved that. The lead horse ran ahead of the horses that Gloria and Ruth were riding. This gave their horses a sense of familiarity and guidance. I was still a part of the group but I did-n't have to risk my life and my dignity.

“The horse trailer we had in those days was a two-horse trailer. This meant that we hauled the horses that Gloria and Ruth rode and my horse Pawnee stayed home—Dad would have to find me a horse for the show. What a gamble! Sometimes I lucked out, sometimes I didn't. There were times that the horse I had just become acquainted with didn't do what we had planned, and I rode many bucking horses. It would make me so angry, and I finally embraced the fact that I was a saddle bronc rider with a sense of humor. Dad thought it was funny.”

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Joy at Chinle Homecoming

It was Little Boy, a quarter horse from Chandler, Arizona, who first stirred Ruth’s passion for fast horses. “What really bonded me to Little Boy is that he was different from sheep camp horses—he had an extra cylinder and was really competitive. I have one vivid memory of going to the arena when I was only five or six-years-old in one of those classic Chinle sandstorms. I didn’t quite have the strength to control him, but that didn’t stop me. My dad instructed us to sit here, hold him here, hold the reins like this—and then let us run him around the arena. I can remember going so fast that my eyes were little squints and the wind was hammering my face. That got my blood pumping and I absolutely loved it! Dad made us run around the arena time and time again, while I kept asking ‘When are we going to do tricks?’ What I later realized was that dad was running the energy off that horse before we could ride him for tricks.”

Lessons for Life

Joy says important life lessons were formed from the experiences they shared growing up with horses. “I learned to enjoy the weather and to smile when I didn't feel like it. Today, I put a smile on when I’m alone because it will set my tone for the day. And, yes, if you get bucked off, you get right back on. You learn every ride is different and you ride solo most of the time. The concept of work was instilled in us at an early age and we saw what teamwork can do. My parents worked together planning and scheduling the summers, and our mother sewed some fantastic outfits for our performances. We all pulled together to succeed.”

Learning to trick-ride takes daily practice. Trick-riding and barrel racing require that horses are 'legged-up' and in top physical shape. “That requires riding everyday, rain or snow, wind or hot sunshine—weather is part of the deal. It made me realize that children learn early about hard work, about what can be endured, and how much we can take,” Ruth said.

The Liberty Stand, where the rider stands upright on a galloping horse, was among their first tricks. Then they learned the Cossack Drag and Fender Drag, hanging upside down off of the side of the horse while attached to a strap. “There has to be a lot of speed from the horse and tons of trust between us,” said Gloria. “It can be dangerous because if the horse decides to run or gets spooked, we had to know how to get out of the one small strap holding my leg.”

Ruth’s best trick-riding horse was a stout gelding named Oklahoma Bear. “When we got him he had all the potential for being a trick-riding horse, but still we had to 'make him'. I remember sometimes when we practiced, he would act like he was going to buck, he'd kind of sulk up and I could feel the hump. We had to ‘sack-him-out' by tying wool sacks stuffed with straw under and on top of him. We turned him loose in the arena and expected him to buck and run wild but he didn't. He absolutely just accepted his load. He never bucked and quit sulking up all together.”

Making Sacrifices: Dad’s Bloody Fingers 

“One of the greatest lessons I learned is what our Father was willing to sacrifices for us,” Ruth recalled. With his one good hand, Grant custom-made all the white saddles the girls owned. “I look back on the time and energy our parents devoted to us with great pride and gratitude.

“I remember one early February morning we were in Tucson, Arizona. Dad got up super early and asked us to join him about 7 am. We slept longer, and I was grumpy. I kept thinking it was so early and it was so cold. When we got to the horses, they were spotless and had just taken a bath. At first I couldn’t believe it because it was so cold. My Dad handed me the reins for Bear, and as I took them I noticed his fingers from his only hand were bleeding. ’Oh Dad, you’re bleed-ing,’ I said, but he didn’t say anything. My horse was cleaned, saddled and ready to go. I went through a major attitude adjustment at that point and hard work never felt like hard work after that. My heart broke knowing my Father did not have help and did a tremendous amount of work while my sisters and I were sleeping, putting on makeup and having breakfast. God was my Dad’s other hand. I’ll never forget the hard sacrifices Dad made for us.”

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Gloria performs One-Foot Stand

After the Grant Sisters stopped trick-riding, Ruth continued riding with the All American Rodeo, made up of Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) members, performing in Helsinki, Finland and Paris, France.

“Trick riding is hard on the body,” she said. “At 40, I came away from my last performance in Paris, France at The Bercy bruised from head to toe, black and blue. A French family, Alan and Natalie Menu, invited us to their home. It was like God gave us this trust to go with them. They took us out of the city and we spent the day in their home where they fed my family, Natalie made tea, rubbed my back, heated damp packs for my bruising. It was spiritual and kind. We all healed from their care and I never forgot their kindness. Angels are always welcome.”

Leon and Sylvia: An Omaha Dine’ Love Story 

For the sisters to explain how they arrived at this point in their lives as cultural ambassadors and strong leaders, they turn to the pillars of their family and retell stories of their parents and grandparents with love and humility. Their mother, Sylvia Gorman, received her schooling and was trained as a pianist at Ganado Mission in the 1940s. She took a bus to enroll in Phoenix College, determined to become a teacher, and had to walk hours to and from Phoenix Indian School where she had a room while attending college. She paid for room and board by tutoring students in reading.

Raised in a family that valued education, Sylvia went on to become Chinle’s first Navajo certified teacher. She taught in tiny houses to mixed ages long before the Chinle Public School system was built. Much loved by her community, throughout her life Sylvia played for weddings, funerals, and Sunday services at the Chinle Presbyterian Church. Her family, the Gormans, gave the Presbyterian Mission the land to build the church and helped to build it. It still stands today.

As a young cowboy from the UMon’Hon people, Grant was a champion saddle bronc rider traveling the country when he lost his right hand to a horse accident. While hospitalized for gangrene, Grant resolved to heal up and start fresh. At 21, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona where he knew no one.

He arrived in 1947 and enrolled in pastoral studies to become a minister at Cook Christian Training Bible Studies. Friendly and charismatic, he made regular visits Phoenix Indian High School where one day he saw Sylvia Gorman standing up holding her tray and trying to eat. He offered her his chair. Though very shy, she accepted, impressed by his gentleman’s ways. With no car, their courtship involved long walks to nice eating places, movies, roller-skating and church activities. A year later, after seeking approval from Sylvia’s family, they married at Ganado Mission Presbyterian Church on the Navajo Nation. They returned to Phoenix where they bought a home. Leon’s work caused him to change career paths; he earned a math degree from Phoenix College and continued working on the Indian Center.

“The family moved home to Chinle in 1953,” said Gloria. “In the ensuing years, we lived a good life there, thrived with our own families. Our parents modeled many good things for us to teach our children, and my mother set a wonderful example of starting family traditions. Every fall in early October, she would make a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings, beverages and dessert, and she’d gather us all up to eat at the edge of the Canyon De Chelly rim. She called it the Goodbye Summer/Fall and Hello Winter Picnic. We would take fold-out tables and chairs or sit on the ground. Our parents gave thanks to the Creator for the wonderful year we had, for the crops that grew, the health of our horses, and for the grandchildren, Jeremiah Bitsui, Mihio Manus, Jolene Manus, and Isaac Grant. They prayed for the beautiful winter coming, and for ‘the gifts for which we are about to receive.’ I will always remember my Mother this way.”

Activist and artist Nataanii Means remembers the spiritual side of his grandfather. “He was the epitome of an indigenous man,” said Means. “He always stressed that prayer is prayer, no matter what you call creator. I can remember a time I was home in Chinle while on break from college, I heard noise outside by the horse corrals and I looked out the window. I saw my grandpa out there by himself trying to load up our horse Mick, who was being ornery and stubborn to get in the trailer. I rushed to the door to get my shoes on to help; as I was getting them on I looked out and for about 20 seconds I just watched in amazement at my grandpa. I stopped what I was doing and was in awe. Mick was pulling back and rearing up, but my grandpa did not budge. He stood there and he reared up with that horse, almost challenging him. There was no fear in his face. For a second it looked as though they had a conversation, an understanding, and Mick stopped, and walked in the trailer. My grandpa patted his hip and locked the trailer up. He was 85 at the time, with one arm. My mother always said he had horse medicine.”

In 2013, the Leon Grant Spirit of the Community Award was established to honor Grant’s life of service, commitment and dedication to the greater good of the American Indian Community in Arizona. This year’s award will be presented to Oneida Nation citizen Ernie Stevens, Sr. at its annual Silver and Turquoise Ball on April 22, 2017 at the Hyatt Regency.

After 70 years, it’s still a place where American Indians can find safe haven, job referrals, cultural programs and youth services, said Patricia Hibbeler, current director of the Phoenix Indian Center. “Leon Grant was as large as life, always with a smile on his face, determined to create better opportunities for American Indian people arriving in town–and he did. The Center continues to provide services in his legacy.”

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Posing on paint horses in Chinle, Arizona: Gloria, Tatanka (standing), Russell and Nataanii Means withtheir Grandpa Leon Grant.

Full Circle 

One day last summer, after church and their Sunday horse ride, Ruth’s husband, Edison, was injured in an accident when his horse fell, causing a head injury that nearly killed him. Edison was flown to Denver for specialized care and rehabilitation, and with family at his side, he’s been making a remarkable recovery over the last several months. Doctors described his recovery as “nothing short of a miracle” and the family credits God’s help and many prayers from family and friends for his progress.

Ruth spends the bulk of her time at Edison’s side these days as he regains strength and continues to improve. Her sisters, extended family, and friends lend support as the family transitions into another stage of life, one filled with challenges, hopes and possibilities. Her sisters and family remain close and, in tandem once again, the Grant Sisters recently formed a consulting firm, Painted Horses, that serves schools, organizations and communities. Two of the sisters live close to one another these days, in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains along the Rio Grande, with corrals, horses and dogs.

“I’ve had 36 horses since my first one and consider each a gift with a unique personality. I am blessed to have the ability to ride, even now,” Ruth said. “Trick-riding was a beginning for me, and I barrel raced for over 30 years. Every horse my husband, Edison, and I ever owned had something special about them. A gate, a look in their eye, a certain preference. My heart and head are strongly connected with my past, my parents, my family, and horses. I thank the Lord that horses could be a large part of my life.

“In competitive riding, and in life, the biggest lesson I learned was to not have my self esteem tied to winning or losing. Attitude is everything. To enjoy competitive riding means your focus is to become better than your last run, making incremental improvements where possible. Winning takes care of itself when elements come together: practice, dedication, being strong and calm.

“And even though horses took my father’s arm and my husband’s health, I love them still.”