I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and always went by the name Kashia Bukowski. Now that I live in Poland, I have embraced my Polish roots and go by my Polish name, Kasia Bukowska. I’m happy to share a bit of my story of how I got to where I am today and I hope it inspires some readers out there struggling with the same things I have struggled with, or continue to struggle with. So here we go!
HIGH SCHOOL & HORSE SHOWS
I was a very lucky teen who had the opportunity to take lessons and go to horse shows. I had a few horses throughout high school, even imported one from Poland with my dad’s help, but I also struggled to cope with perfectionism and body image, which led me to severe anxiety and depression. I want to share my experince because I’m sure that there are other people out there who can relate to what I went through.
High school is rough and I can’t imagine how it is these days with social media putting pressure on teens to live extragent, exciting lives. But back when I was in high school (I graduated from Arcadia High School in ’08) I had OCD when it came to things like homework and drawings. It took me forever and a day to get work done because if I messed up, I’d get so overwhlemingly angry I had to crumple up my paper and start over again. It might seem silly to some people, but students who struggle with perfectionism know what I mean. It could take me all night to get just one assignement done. And even then, I was almost never satisfied with my work and almost always disappointed in myself for not being better. I felt useless for not being a smarter student, a more skilled artist, a more talented equestrian, and the list goes on. I was able to experince happiness here and there and was able to have fun with friends, but deep down my world was very dim. I was hard on myself to a point where everything I did somehow felt like a fauilure and I hated myself for not being „good enough.” I wasn’t able to see and appreciate the good I had done, I just focused on my mistakes and how I could do better next time.
Swimming in this sea of negativity, my insecurities spilled over into my body image. I thought I should be skinnier and that would make me prettier. But being anorexic and bulimic is not what makes a person beautiful, which is something I understand now. Up until my mid twenties, I felt like I was failing in every aspect of my life, though looking back at my teenage years, I just think, „wow, I did A LOT! And I did those things WELL!”. But I was young and had blinders on that prevented me from seeing the true me and all the good I was capable of! I only discovered myself, my talents, and all that I’m capable of after being hospitalized for over a month and bedridden for nearly three months. I will dive into how much being diagnosed with lupus sle and fibromyalgia helped me a little later in my story, but for now I’ll fill you in on life after high school.
I wanted to become a an equine vet in high school and I was able to go on a few ride-along’s with my vet to help to get some first-hand experience. But after high school I felt lost. I attended Pasadena Community College and LA Valley College and kept switching between wanting to be a vet or business owner. I was all over the place, struggling to find my path and what I wanted to do in life. But one this I did know is that I wanted to pursue my riding, jump grand prix, and I wanted a shire. I realize a shire is the complete opposite of a grand prix jumper, but a girl can dream can’t she? I love the masjetic beauty and massive presense of drafts, which is why all gentle giants have a special place in my heart.
Anyways, life after high school became overwhleming with juggling three to four part-time jobs at a time, working up to 80 hour weeks, and going to night classes at both PCC and LAVC. Often times I felt discouraged and that I would never accomplish my dreams. I felt like my life was a mess and I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t sure how to change it. Then one day I got a call that my dream horse was for sale… In Poland!
DREAM HORSE & POLAND
I fell in love with my Holsteiner x Arabian cross when he was just a yearling. There was something special about this specific foal at the barn in Poland where I rode at every summer on vacation. I just felt like “he was the one,” I knew he was my heart horse. I saw him again when he was about four years old and stood by his stall for hours staring at him in awe. When he was out in the field I just stared at him, dreaming of the day he would be retired and put up for sale. I hoped it would be like one of those equine love stories. And it was! Except without him being retired part!
Though he was a very talented horse with amazing bloodlines, he had (and continues to have) a bit of a temper. He is the alpha in any herd he goes into and is very opinionated. Needless to say, he was a difficult horse that needed a very patient, yet assertive, rider. And I decided it was my chance! SO! I sold the two horses I had in LA to my students and flew to Poland to get him. I bought him without ever riding him or working with him. Or even having a vet check for that matter. I just had to have him!
I planned on training in Poland and doing a few horse shows on Sławny (in English this means “famous”) before coming back to LA with him. After two rides on him and one horse show, I decided to stay in Poland! I got the horse I fell in love with and I wanted to continue training with the man who bred him at Hadrian Riding Center. Having lessons four days a week and competing was something my family could afford in Poland. So, I stayed. Plus, it brought me one step closer to my dream of jumping grand prix!
Only a year and a half after moving to Poland, I landed myself in not only just one hospital, but was moved here and there among three hospitals. In the span of just one week I went from an active horserider, Zumba enthusiast, go karting and crossfit fiend to a vegetable not even capable of feeding herself. I felt embarressed. I felt like a burdern not only on my family, but my boyfriend of only three months. I flew to the US in hopes of USC being able to diagnose what 20+ doctors couldn’t in Poland. And they were able to diagnose me, after nine long months. I became depressed because I felt like I was a fauilure again, my whole body was a complete fauilure, and I lost my will to live. I mean, when doctors told me I would never ride horses again, I really didn’t see any point in fighting beacuase, what for? Horses were my life. I felt like all hope was lost, but my boyfriend wouldn’t let me give up that easily.
I had met my husband three months prior to the sudden onset of my dibilitating symptoms at the barn where I kept Sławny in Warsaw. He stayed with me by my side in the hospital before and after work and refused to budge when the nurses tried to escort him out. He even stepped up to be my caretaker. I was heartbroken. He did not sign up for all that he was doing for me and I wanted to break up with him. He ignored my negativity and kept promising me he wouldn’t leave me. He explained how he would build me a barn so I could have the horses I always dreamed of, inculding a shire. I thought it would be pointless to have horses if I couldn’t ride, but even when I moaned and groaned about how it was a bad idea and I should just sell Sławny, he promised he’d get me a pimped out wheelchair in pink and my only job each day would be wheeling myself out to give the horses kisses and carrots. He was there for me at my worst, and at that moment I knew he was the one. This special guy’s name is Kamil and he was my rock when I felt like throwing in the towel calling it quits.
FINDING A REASON TO FIGHT
Kamil helped keep my head above water until I could find my own motivation to fight.I typed in “how to train a horse from a wheelchair” and came across some inspirational stories on the internet. The one that moved me most was Amberley Snyder’s story, a rider who was paralyzed but got back in the and even went on to compete! I also came across mustang makeover for the first time and became intrigued by natural horsemanship. Even if I wouldn’t be able to ride, I was sure I could still train horses using natural horsemanship. And so my journey into natural training and riding began!
In order to gain the strength to start working with horses again, I needed to start exercising. And painting was about the most physical activity I could do at that time, so I painted. Everyone has to start somewhere!
PAINTING IN PAIN
I started to paint in bed as a means of releasing the bitterness, resentment, and negativity I had bottled up inside about my body and my situation. I also painted to express my newfound hope of getting strong enough to reunite with my horse, Sławny, back in Poland. I was never good with words and telling my mom or friends about what I was going through didn’t help as much as expressing those emotions through color on a canvas. It was a time I could really get in touch with my feelings and slowly to to accept the cards I had been dealt. I used dark and bold colors that gave a rather dismal feel to the whole painting but there was always glimmer of hope. Maybe in the eyes of the horses or brightly colored accents, my paintings revealed my courage to fight the odds and become strong enough to one day get back on my horse, Sławny. As I got physically stronger, I started dreaming about my future shire and brainstorming how to make that fairytale a reality, before I kicked the bucket.
The better I felt, the more I painted, the more paintings I sold, the brighter the colors got, and the more energy I had to tutor English. I saved up enough money to buy my dream horse, which was a grey shire mare named, Lilly. Not long after that I also bought Roxy, my bay shire, and Lulu, my buckskin akhal teke. How I bought each of them is a long story, but in a nutshell, I knew each of them was “the one” when I saw photos and videos. I wanted young, green, horses with as little human contact as possible because I wanted to work with them using the new methods I was learning about online. Though I would not recommend buying sight unseen to anyone, I do not regret my decision to buy and import three mares from the UK.
I actually kept my horses a secret from my parents for over a year. They thought it was financially irresponsible. Which I understand now, but I saw these horses as a form of equine therapy, both emotional and physical therapy, that were more than essential to my recovery.
According to my doctors, I was supposed to push past the pain and move as much as I could. I was on up to 20 pills a day but even the pain meds couldn’t get me out of bed. Having these green horses gave me a reason to get up in the morning. Sometimes it took me half the day just to warm up my body enough to be able to drive to the barn. But I had a very solid reason to keep fighting. If I had not found those inspirational stories and I had not started learning there was more to horses than just riding, I would’ve continued on in my spiral into deep depression, and who knows how, and when, my story would’ve ended.
When I wasn’t at the barn, I spent countless hours on youtube, reading natural horsemanship and positive reinforcement blogs, and horse communication and body language books. I started taking bits from different methods of training and different trainers to come up with a way to work with my horse that worked for the both of us. I learned a lot through trial and error, but it was an amazing journey to learn to work with horses with a variety of personalities and varying temperaments.
I started riding both Sławny and Roxy bridleless, even completely tackless. It was such an accomplishment for me to know and understand my horses well to not need any tangible thing to communicate with them. Their connection and willingness while I’m riding bridleless it the most priceless, happy, and liberating feeling ever. It’s hard for me to describe it in words, but you can see it, maybe even feel it, looking at my colorful, whimsical paintings.
I’d also like to mention that last year, I took part in the International Bridleless Champions in Wrocław, Poland on my horse Sławny. I competed in both dressage and .80-.90m jumpers. Unfortunately, my body has set some limitations for me and this year and I will not be taking part in any competitions. But, I’m not letting that get me down. I am positive that next year I’ll be going back for my bridleless debeut!
Mygoal is to share what I’ve learned about horsemanship and bridleless riding with riders who are open to learning about a new way to connect with their horse. I will be organizing bitless and bridleless riding holidays in the future where riders build a connection with my horses through painting out in the paddocks with them, learning about calming signals and body language, and even getting on them and learning how to ride bitless. Some riders who do well may even get to practice riding bridleless!
I know how I felt accomplishing my goals and setting new ones. I built so much confidence and it actually motivated me to set new goals and reach for the stars! I want to bring that light into people’s lives and show them it’s really possible to connect with if they are open to the idea of changing their ways and tweaking their perspective on life.