House Beautiful: Show-jumping champ traded horses for lambs

Long-time Islanders will remember Bo Mearns as the greatest horsewoman this region ever produced — a Hall of Fame champion known as the equestrian queen of Canada in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mearns swung out of the saddle for the last time a few years ago and sold her previous large farm, where she had ridden and stabled 35 horses for four decades.

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Her new home is a smaller five-hectare spread in North Saanich where she now raises sheep — like the other Bo — and crops ranging from hay and figs to lemons and limes.

“I started riding at age four and was on a horse for more than 70 years,” said the retired show jumper and former member of Canada’s national equestrian team.

Sheep can jump a small fence, she noted with a chuckle, but on her prize horse, The Flying Nun, she soared to much greater heights. She set a seven-foot-two-inch Canadian record while scoring 16 major event wins across the nation.

Seven years ago Mearns sold Hunt Valley Farm, which she and ex-husband Craig Mearns bought in 1973. She then bought this property in Deep Cove, formerly an asparagus farm and market.

“The market closed down years ago and the property had not been kept up, so it took an unbelievable amount of work to clean up,” she recalled.

“The barn was falling down. There was debris everywhere, bush, brambles, everything was overgrown.”

She cleared trees and brush, but the biggest issue was an enormous irrigation pond. The municipality said it was a natural wetland but she eventually convinced councillors (after numerous delays, stop work orders and special hearings) that it was a man-made dug out.

The house was a challenge too, “infested and filled with asbestos,” so she offered it to the local fire department to burn down as practice.

Contractor Jim Dunlop built her new residence featuring a larger main home and a smaller guest house, separated by a broad, cool covered patio.

This summer instead of “getting cooked in the house” she often ate breakfast, lunch and dinner there, using it as another living room.

The 1,800-square-foot home’s living room ceiling is white metal, its floor is mostly hard-wearing, practical tile and the kitchens and bathrooms are kitted out in full IKEA style with ovens, sinks, cooktops, hood fans and cabinets from the store.

She found the home design online, Dunlop came up with plans for the guest cottage and a draftsman drew it all up with minor changes.

“My contractor was wonderful,” said Mearns. “I didn’t need a designer because Jim was so experienced, having built lots of high-end homes.

“I didn’t want a big house and I liked this design. We faced it south and if you drive up it looks very plain, like an army barracks according to my ex, but I think it’s cool with the fireplace and all the storage in the centre, so you walk in a circle all through the house.”

She has a spacious dressing room, accessed through the master bath, and it leads to an equally large and efficient laundry and utility room.

Geothermal heat was costly to install, but inexpensive to run and she likes the consistent heat.

Mearns said there was very little acreage to choose from when she started looking for property, “on a limited budget.”

The farm cost her $1.1 million, and $700,000 more was spent on the house, drive-through garage and barn restoration — which included moving a staircase, adding a laundry for towels for baby lambs and creating a new tack room modelled on one she saw on Pinterest, where it was described as one of the 25 best tack rooms in the world.

“I’m not a person who needs marble countertops or new things. I bought everything on Marketplace and Facebook — furniture, pictures, lamps — and had the best time doing it.”

The home also suits her Manchester terriers, who have their own doors in and out.

A welcome mat in the entry reads: “If you don’t like dog hairs, stay off the sofa,” and also “You will be sniffed and licked, deal with it.”

Her roomy guest cottage came in handy recently when friends wanted to visit and have an experience of lambing.

“We took turns watching the 18 ewes round the clock, and then we filled a nursery with 33 lambs. We had a great time and enjoyed a wonderful big breakfast after being up all night. Horse people make the great helpers… they know how to muck out a barn.”

Mearns started riding at four and got a job at 18 at Stanford University’s famous Red Barn in California, home of the Stanford Equestrian Team. For three years she showed horses and worked under a well known riding coach there.

After coming home and a stint at UVic she started her own business at 21.

She bought her famous Flying Nun for $400 at Sandown Racetrack where she galloped horses. “I liked her big ears.”

“Flying Nun was too slow for the track, but I discovered very quickly she could jump. I was lunging her on a rope one day in a big circle, and free-jumped her over a two-foot fence. She shot up five feet in the air — she was a natural.”

She had about 50 horses over the years, and half a dozen were champions.

“It was an all-encompassing life with no time for anything else,” she recalled.

“For years I drove my four-horse trailer all over North America and travelled to Europe. I never saw anything but horses and show rings but had an amazing time.

She doesn’t have a horse anymore and decided to sell the big farm because she was tired.

“I put in huge physical work every day of my life, riding horses, giving lessons, travelling to shows, doing the chores… but luckily I never had a serious fall.

“Many friend needed hip or knee replacements or have back problems, but all I did was break a collar bone, some fingers and a few ribs,” said Mearns, 77.

She was part of six International Nations Cup Teams, the world’s oldest and most prestigious team challenge in equestrian sport, and friends couldn’t believe it when she said she was going to start sheep farming.

“They thought it was nonsense but it’s really lovely working with these harmless, sweet animals.”

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