Some people learn to love animals. And then there’s Bo Derek, who believes she was just “born horse crazy.” As a young child, Mary Cathleen Collins (Bo’s given name) covered her bedroom walls with equines of all shapes and colors, and gobbled up stories like Black Beauty.
Never did she imagine that a cornrow hairstyle and a short jog along a beach would help make her dreams a reality. The actress, who rocketed to star status in 1979’s hit movie 10, bought her first home, a 46-acre ranch, with her actor and director husband John Derek, a year later. There, the couple indulged their mutual passion for animals, counting as many as 22 horses and a dozen dogs as part of their family at one point.
The setting was perfect for Bo, who, as a kid, seemed to draw homeless animals to her like a magnet. “My parents loved animals, but I was always bringing home strays and I remember my mom rolling her eyes around as if to say ‘Oh no, not again.’”
Between making movies, Bo loved playing ranch hand, carrying out many of the daily chores herself. John, who she calls an expert horseman, taught her a great deal about riding. “He was so intuitive and had such a way with animals,” explains Bo. Not long after they settled on the ranch, John decided to give up riding altogether. As he explained to her, “I can’t stand being told what to do and I don’t want to tell an animal what to do anymore.”
While scouting locations in Spain for the movie, Bolero, Bo fell in love with the Andalusian horses. When she returned home in 1983, she decided to try breeding them. With six stallions and four broodmares, her business was focused on selling her stud’s DNA to prospective buyers. But it was the foals born on her own ranch that touched her most deeply. The actress took on the role of midwife, helping and supporting her mares through the birth process. She calls the experiences “magical.”
“It’s late at night and some mares just appreciate you being there so much,” she explains. “Celosa would just put her head in my lap and groan. Others want to kick you, of course. But you have to minister to them, so you just keep ducking and diving!”
When the actor saw how full her barns were getting, she knew she had to sell some of her horses’ progeny. “I was very careful where I sold my foals,” Bo says. “The first time I saw one for resale, it just broke my heart. I have all these fantasies of Black Beauty and such and I just couldn’t deal with it. I have this real sense of responsibility toward animals. That someone would want to sell one of these horses, that it wasn’t the love of their lives — it just crushed me. Mentally and emotionally, I’m not cut out to do it.”
Apparently, this sense of responsibility travels with Bo. The 46-year-old actress made headlines this past winter when she rescued a 14-month-old Yorkshire terrier she saw running in the streets of Toronto one night. She left her contact information with local businesses and returned to her hotel.
“It was raining and there was traffic and I said, ‘We have to pull over and get this little dog,’” recalls Bo. “Meanwhile, this poor woman thought her little dog was missing out in the rain but she was at the Four Seasons Hotel having room service. The woman came to the room the next morning and she was so excited.”
Bo sold the ranch for financial reasons after her husband’s death in 1998. She now shares a home with her sister Kerry, and her family. She’s down to two horses: Celosa, a 27-year-old mare, who Bo feels very close to, and Gaiata, the mare she calls talented in the ring but with whom Bo is still working at developing an emotional connection.
“I think it’s harder to have a relationship with a horse than with a dog. When you do have a bond like that, it’s really special. Trying to get a horse to leave green grass to go for a ride is really hard whereas a dog, when they bond with you, they’ll stick with you.
So when you do get involved with a horse, it’s so much more flattering, in a way. I’ve had over 30 horses and I’ve only really bonded with two. Gaiata is brilliant, but she won’t leave her grass for me.”
Rounding out her animal family is Aiwa, the nine-year-old female German shepherd from Czechoslovakia who Bo originally acquired for protection. Aiwa is the second shepherd Bo has acquired for this purpose.
“I first got my male, Cifi, because I was driving back and forth to L.A. a lot, which is 100 miles away and I wanted a visual deterrent. Both he and later Aiwa arrived at three years of age. I had always had many dogs, and raised and trained a lot from puppies, and I didn’t think I would have the same kind of bond with these Shepherds, but it turned out to be exactly the same. When they came into my home, they just really blossomed.”
Bo would like to get another dog but wants to wait until her hectic traveling schedule slows down a bit. In the meantime, she enjoys the time she does have with Aiwa. She says she really appreciates the unconditional love and loyalty that her dogs have shown her through the years. “People can be so disappointing in life. But dogs are always so dependable and happy. I’m so lazy and I hate to exercise but the dog comes in the room and it’s like ‘C’mon, let’s go for a walk, c’mon! It’s hard to be depressed around them.’”
In addition to keeping busy with acting roles (most recently in the comedy film Malibu’s Most Wanted, with Ryan O’Neal and Jamie Kennedy), Bo has launched Bless the Beasts, a hygiene product line for pets, which she felt was more in keeping with her true interests than the human products being constantly peddled to her.
“I had been approached for 20 years for different kinds of beauty products and I kept turning things down because I wasn’t really comfortable giving beauty advice. At one point I was working with chemists and I said ‘What I really need is something for all my animals. They smell so bad they’re driving me out of my own home’. So I started working with chemists just for my own use. Everything out there is basically industrial strength and harsh ingredients so these products are unique. It’s a new world for me, but it’s where my heart is.”
A percentage of sales from Bless the Beasts go to Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that trains dogs to assist people living with disabilities. She chose Canine Companions because she’s seen firsthand the impact a therapy dog can make on the life of a handicapped individual. Bo’s stepson, Russell, from John’s first marriage, was left a quadriplegic after a tragic motorcycle accident. His life changed after he self-trained a Doberman as a therapy dog.
“The joy this dog brought a very lonely young man, was astounding. I really think therapy dogs bring out the best in humans and the animals too. If you’re in a wheelchair, it’s a very lonely world. You can be going down the street, trying to get something to eat and people look the other way. But having a dog not only makes you more independent, it suddenly makes you very approachable. People stop to talk to you.”
Bo also serves as National Honorary Chairperson of the Veteran’s Association Rehabilitation Special Events. In this capacity, she attends clinics to meet veterans and raise awareness of their courage and abilities. “There’s nothing like sports,” says Bo. “It’s so healing. Seeing these guys out there on the hills in Aspen – it’s wonderful!”
The actress wrote a book last year, Riding Lessons: Everything that matters in life I learned from horses, a candid look at her childhood, her adventurous, tumultuous life with John Derek and her search to find her “legs” after John’s death.
Through it all, the animals have been there. Says Bo, “Animals are a joy and a bonus. They’re my blessings in my life.”