The uncanny story of how one Paint Horse breeder and a special stallion fostered a seemingly endless number of connections, an unlikely friendship and an enduring legacy.
By Alana Harrison
While many would chalk up the extraordinary circumstances leading to Donna Simmons and Cheryl Hill’s unlikely friendship as mere coincidence, the two women—who hail from vastly different backgrounds—attribute their decade-long friendship to much more than chance.
After Donna’s parents, Don and Mary Simmons, were killed in a tragic boat accident in 2007, a series of uncanny events led to a myriad of remarkable links that—to this day—continue to unfold. This patchwork quilt of connections that transpired in the wake of their deaths continue to proliferate Don’s legacy and that of his beloved stallion, Bells Pistol Pete.
Threading the Needle
After years of city life in Colorado Springs, Don and Mary escaped east to Ellicott, Colorado, where they established Rocking SH Ranch. In addition to breeding Paints, Don and Mary founded New Hope Church on five of the ranch’s front acres, where Don served as associate pastor for more than 20 years.
“Dad didn’t graduate from seminary, but he had a love of the word,” Donna explained. “He didn’t want to argue about the finer points of theology—he just wanted to bring people to Christ. His ministry was just as much in the barn as it was in the church, where all were welcome.”
When Don hauled a stallion to sell at an auction in Texas in 1999, he had no plans to buy another one. But the moment he saw “Pistol,” a stunning brown-and-white tobiano yearling, he rushed to borrow a bidding paddle from a friend.
“He could somehow tell right away that Pistol was a really smart little stallion,” Donna said.
After bringing Pistol home, Don was reviewing the yearling’s pedigree and couldn’t believe what he saw—Pistol was sired by a 1994 black tobiano named DS Prayer Reward.
“Not only did the horse’s name contain Dad’s initials, but as a pastor he got the biggest kick out of Prayer Reward,” Donna laughed.
Don put Pistol in training with Jack Wright of Penrose, Colorado, and had high hopes that his smart little stallion would be successful in roping, reined cow horse and ranch versatility. Fate, however, had other plans. An injury sidelined Pistol from the show ring but opened the door to a breeding career and new connections.
Adventures in Breeding
In 2004, Cheryl and her father, Larry Hill, made their annual trek to the National Western Stock Show in Denver to canvass “Stallion Alley” for Paints, as they shared an interest in flashy horses. Both father and daughter were speechless when they saw Pistol, his chocolate-and-chrome coat luminous despite the dimly lit stall.
“We immediately started talking to Don. He was so kind-hearted and invited us to his ranch to see Pistol in his natural environment,” Cheryl said. “My friendship with Don grew from that day on.”
While Cheryl worked as a middle-school teacher by day, Don rapidly fueled her fervor for breeding Paints. As he helped her better understand the business, she was determined to learn everything she could about producing smart, athletic, colorful Paints.
“I was like a sponge—I just wanted to soak it all up,” Cheryl recalled. “I wanted to learn all about his philosophies—what he was breeding for, the bloodlines he sought and what crosses produced the best horses.”
The savvy horseman continued Cheryl’s breeding education until 2007 when he and Mary decided to downsize their ranch and retire to Lake Powell in Southern Utah. Don kept Pistol and a handful of mares to give his granddaughter, London, a head start in the business she would one day take over. A few days before Don and Mary left, Cheryl came to pick up a mare she’d recently purchased. It would be the last time she spent time with her mentor.
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2018 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.