Amateur Breeder Spotlight: Dick and Debra Donnelly

Amateur Breeder Spotlight: Dick and Debra Donnelly

The quest for gold took Iowa breeders Dick and Debra Donnelly from cutting through western pleasure and into halter.

A man  with silver-gray hair wearing a gray hat and suit leads a sorrel weanling with two white hind stockings around a pink cone in a halter class.

(Shane Rux photo)

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By Jennifer Horton for The American Quarter Horse Journal

The quest for a world champion begins with a breeder and the challenge to find the perfect cross: evaluating individuals, studying pedigrees, watching performance results and dreaming the vision.

All that planning is followed by an 11-month wait for that foal to arrive. A little luck thrown in doesn’t hurt.

Richard Donnelly’s pride in his breeding program shines in his eyes – and he has proven that those proud eyes also have a knack for matching pedigrees and selecting individuals.

As Dick grew up in southwest Iowa; horses were part of everyday life. His father had a cow-calf operation, and the family used horses in daily ranch life. With the cattle and horses, cutting was a natural fit.

“My dad and I showed in AQHA cuttings back then,” Dick says. “It was my first love.”

During college at the University of Northern Iowa, Dick had a summer job for a trucking company as a log check-in clerk.

“After I had been there a few months, my mentor asked me where I wanted to be in the future with the company,” Dick says. “I told him I wanted to be sitting in his chair. That’s where I ended up.”

Following graduation from UNI and a stint in the service, Dick returned to Warren Transport and began on his path to that chair. That summer job led to a lifelong career with the same company and he retired, as president, in 2018.

“Retirement from Warren Transport is allowing me more time to be what I’ve always wanted to be,” Dick says. “A cowboy.”

In 1974, Dick established his D-Bar-D Quarter Horses near the small town of LaPorte City, Iowa, then realized the time, travel and work involved to compete in cutting was more than he had to give. He switched gears to the halter and pleasure side of the horse business, popular in Iowa and an easier fit for his busy life. His hobby raising horses developed into a successful side business.

“I was fortunate to find three foundation-bred mares that gave me a good start,” he says. “The Iowa (Quarter Horse Breeders) Futurity was a significant force in the United States then, and a few friends encouraged me to breed to stallions enrolled in it. It worked out extremely well.”

That might be an understatement, as Dick has won the Iowa Breeders Futurity nearly 20 times in the past 43 years.

As much as he tried to avoid it, Dick did get into the stallion business when the opportunity presented itself: He purchased world champion Kidlook in 2005.

“I was fortunate to see him as a foal. I told (my wife) Debi that if we’d ever have a stud, he would be it,” Dick says. “He was gorgeous, his conformation was absolutely correct, he was balanced, his neck tied in right. He had it all, and a great disposition. And he bred that way.”

Kidlook daughters proved his strength as a breeding stallion.

“His daughters have really been producers,” Dick says. “We kept some and sold some, as they were in demand. Our last one passed away this year.”


In 2017, Debra Donnelly showed their homebred Hez Outa The Box to a Select world title
in aged stallions. PHOTO: Journal file photo

It was a Kidlook daughter, Lookin At A Lady, who gave them Hez Outa The Box – Dick and Debra’s three-time AQHA world champion stallion.

The stallion first showed as a 2-year-old at the Breeders Halter Futurity. With Dick at the lead, Hez Outa The Box won the owner/breeder/exhibitor prize and was reserve champion overall.

As a 3-year-old, Hez Outa The Box was AQHA reserve world champion in open and amateur 3-year-old stallions. In 2017, he hit the trifecta, winning the world champion title in open, amateur and Select aged stallions.

“He has a disposition of gold, and is such an easy keeper,” Dick says. “We qualified him ourselves. He’s just a tremendous horse.”

Dick’s breeding philosophy has remained the same over the years.

“Overall, we are trying to improve the breed,” Dick says. “We want to improve every aspect of the horse we can. Balance and correctness is what we want. Where a mare has faults, we choose sires to improve her foals.

“A very wise breeder once told me that you should be able to recognize quality at two days, two months and two years. Usually, I’ve been able to do that. Halter or performance, balance and true form-to-function applies to every segment. True balance will help contribute to their success.

“We believe the popularity of the sire will help in the marketability of the foal, but form-to-function still prevails.” 

His advice to breeders?

“Start with what you know and try to improve on what you have. Remember, you might have a great individual, but it really takes mare power. That dam and granddam have a lot of influence. To this day, I feel the mare line has a huge impact, and it has worked out for us.”

In 2017, Dick showed Intentional Red, a junior weanling filly, at the Breeders Halter Futurity to earn nearly $20,000 that one week.

“We bought her as a baby from Heather Olson, and fit and trained her. She had a gorgeous head and, overall, was balanced and correct. And she was out of a good mare.”

In 2018, Dick took Sheza Sharp Shooter to Des Moines for the BHF. The homebred mare by Theamazinggunslinger and out of Imbraceable by Im Kiddin won amateur yearling mares, a prize that included the Gary Gordon Memorial Traveling Trophy, honoring the BHF stallion owner who died earlier that year.

“I’d known Gary for many years,” Dick says. “I can tell you that award meant enough to Debi and me that we commissioned (original artist) Jodi Finkenbinder to create our own bronze, so it will stay with us on our mantel.”

Perhaps best known for their halter horses, the D-Bar-D has also produced some nice pleasure horses, including Macs Good N Plenty, Congress class winner and an AQHA leading sire.

While Dick sends pleasure horses to trainers, he has always preferred to keep his halter horses at home and do the work himself, using professionals for Lucas Oil World preparation. He has always believed in hands-on work with his horses.

“If you do it yourself, it’s the best way to learn and to make better decisions,” he says. “Investing your own time and money, you don’t make the same mistakes twice.”

The past year was an exceptional year for Dick’s breeding program. The very first foal by Hez Outa The Box hit the ground, like a pot of gold under a rainbow. They knew they had a good one, and visiting horsemen seemed to agree when they saw the colt.

“We felt pretty confident his second day on the ground,” Dick says of the colt’s potential.

“He had that look, we knew he was special,” Debra adds.

Out of Lil Surfer Girl, Jack E Boy won the Big Money Futurity and was named AQHA amateur world champion with Dick and open world champion with AQHA Professional Horseman Ross Roark at the shank.

“While we’ve had others competing and winning at high levels this year, this was the icing on the cake,” Dick says. “We raised his daddy, and his daddy’s mother. This colt’s dam is a five-time (Palomino Horse Breeders of America) world champion, so this is a whole line of winners.”

The wins have been a long time coming.

“This has been a journey,” Dick says. “There are so many people who contributed to our success. At some time or another, we have been with many of the top trainers for final preparation for the major events, including Jerry Wells, Ross Roark and Ted Turner. We thank them all for their support.”

“But I can’t forget many great folks along this journey, like Burdette Johnson and Laverne and Rita Jones for their encouragement over the years,” he says.

In 2009, Dick and Debra moved to their new home and facility north of Cedar Falls, Iowa. They designed and built the barn twice after a tornado destroyed it before it was finished the first time. The couple is currently devoting time to building a new house at the ranch and, of course, fitting and training this year’s prospects.

“We’ve got the pipeline loaded for halter and pleasure, with several really strong yearling prospects,” Dick says. “As a breeder, our yearly goal is to continue to produce world champions. Those globes never get old. There’s a lot of luck involved in that day, so much can happen that’s out of your control – sickness, injury, so many external factors. Going into that pen and coming out with a globe is still the highest honor.”