California-born Kasia went to Poland to find the horse that would take her to Grand Prix jumping. However, her world almost ended when she was diagnosed with Lupus SLE and Fibromyalgia and she was told she would never ride again. This is the story of how her horses gave her the strength and courage to fight back, how she discovered natural horsemanship and started competing bridle-less. Through the healing power of horses, she went from living in a wheelchair to riding again. She now lives in Poland, where she is working on setting up a horsemanship center where people can learn to connect with horses through painting as well as to learn how to ride without a bridle.
Author: Kasia Bukowska
From LA to Poland, and Never Coming Back
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and always went by Kashia Bukowski. After moving to Poland in 2013, I embraced my Polish roots and now go by my Polish name, Kasia Bukowska. What prompted me to move to Poland was a very special horse, my jumper named Sławny (pronounced Suave-ny). I actually sold two older horses I had in LA to my students when I heard Sławny was for sale. I had fallen in love with him five years prior and always dreamed of owning him. But at that time, he was not for sale. I thought it would be like one of those fairytale movies where he’d be retired and I would swoop in and buy him and love him for ever and ever! Well, I didn’t have to wait quite that long for him! He was gelded at five years old and when he turned six and was still a difficult horse, the breeder was ready to get rid of this handful. My plan was to go to Poland, train with the person who bred and trained him, and take him back with me to LA. But after the first week, I decided I wasn’t going back home. I saw such a great opportunity to further my riding and maybe even accomplish my dream of competing in Grand Prix. My new home was in Poland!
About a year and a half later, my world was turned up-side-down when I was diagnosed with Lupus SLE and Fibromyalgia. I went from being an active individual involved in Zumba, cross fit, go-karting, and competing to being bedridden with doctors telling me I wouldn’t ride horses again.
Both Lupus and Fibromyalgia are autoimmune diseases. With Fibromyalgia the processes in your body get confused and your nerves start firing, causing muscle spasms, fatigue, memory loss, confusion, and widespread body pain. On the other hand, Lupus is an inflammatory disease where the body starts to attack itself. For me, that meant every joint in my body. Some of my other symptoms included a fever that lasted about six months, hair loss, migraines, abdominal pain, and sensitivity to light. Both diseases are like roller coasters, with their ups and downs.
This is the point in my life where I actually started painting horses and learning about horsemanship. It alleviated the emotional pain of not seeing horses for months on end. Expressing myself through art allowed me to overcome this obstacle in my life by helping me process my emotions, accept the cards I had been dealt, and reevaluate my goals. I researched a way I could still be around horses and work with them, even from a wheelchair. And I found the inspiration I needed to prove doctors wrong!
Overcoming Lupus, Discovering Natural Horsemanship and Painting
When doctors first told me that even being around horses was dangerous in my condition, I lost all hope. I wanted to call it quits. I felt there was no point in living if I wouldn’t be able to ride again. I couldn’t pick up a brush, let alone lead a horse or even ride, both due to the pain and in fear of tearing my stiff and fragile tendons. With all the medications and steroids I was on, my bones were weak and a little fall that I would’ve laughed at a year prior could potentially land me with multiple broken bones.
I wallowed in depression for a while before coming 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 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!
Being Inspired by Alicia Burton
The more I started researching and learning about natural horsemanship the more interested and motivated I became. I came across Alicia Burton and was not only inspired by her incredible tackless jumping, but also her inspirational story. I wanted what she had with her horse Goldrush. I dreamed of such a connection that I would be able to ride bridleless, even if that just meant walking around bridleless. A girl can dream, can’t she?
I worked incredibly hard to get better. I had never been more committed, motivated, and determined in my entire life! Among other things, I changed my diet, tried acupuncture, natural medicine, massage therapy, physical therapy, and eventually started doing yoga. I incorporated essential oils to my daily living, meditation, and started painting to exercise the joints in my hands. At that point in my disease, it was the most physical exercise I could do and the best therapy to release all my pent up emotions. I moved on to try yoga and eventually was able to drive myself to the gym. I was determined to work with my Sławny again, develop that deep connection I was dying to have with a horse, and get back on and feel his 3-beat canter!
The Healing Power of Horses
The more progress on the ground with Sławny and the stronger I got, the more I kept dreaming of not just cantering Sławny again, but jumping tackless like my idol Alicia Burton. I also got stuck daydreaming of putting my show coat back on and competing bridleless! I threw out all that negative energy from doctors, family, and friends. Because to most people, my goals were unrealistic and unattainable. But that didn’t get me down, it only gave me more drive to prove them wrong!
Finding My Own Training Method
Not only that, but it also didn’t take me long to get a young, green shire to train and start on my own. My idea was that I wanted to start my dream shire using the new methods I was learning, which was a combination of natural horsemanship and positive reinforcement. Again, no one really supported me in all my crazy endeavors because these activities were above my physical and financial capabilities due to my condition. But I was working hard to get better and I WAS getting better. Having these goals gave me the motivation 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.
Instead, 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 tried different things with Sławny and saw what worked for us. Eventually when I got my shire, along with a few other horses I collected, I refined my techniques through working with them. I learned a lot through trial and error, but it was an amazing journey.
It’s amazing how much the body can benefit from positivity. Even though I was still in pain, I was bursting with happiness. I had never felt such confidence in myself before. Nor had I felt a reason to live again. I had this zest for life I never had before being diagnosed with lupus SLE and fibromyalgia.
Overcoming Judgement by Classical Riders
Another obstacle I had to get over was how classical riders treated me. Though it’s getting more and more popular to ride bitless or bridleless, natural horsemanship methods and positive reinforcement methods are still looked down upon by a lot of classical riders and trainers.
I’ve had trainers laugh in my face and tell me what I do is not actual riding. I’ve had barn owners come up to me and tell me to get a trainer for my horse and actually do something other than playing games. I even had a Parelli certified trainer who competed in a Polish version of the mustang makeover tell me that I lacked connection with my horse and that the training I was doing wasn’t actual horse training. And of course, on top of that I got dirty looks and demeaning comments from riders in the barns I kept my horses at. Not all riders and trainers had a negative view of what I was doing, but a majority saw me as a joke.
Using My Art to Pay for My Horses
I also started selling my art and working as a native speaker and saving up for my dream shire. When I almost had enough saved up, I went to my parents to ask for help. No one thought it was a good idea. There were still some days I struggled to pull the fridge open, yet I wanted to import a young, green shire to train all on my own… So, I kept saving up and bought my first shire in secret. And then another shire the following month, and an Akhal-Teke the following month! I imported all of them from the UK. I may have gone a bit overboard in buying ponies, but they all gave me such a profound determination to get better.
No one, not even my boyfriend at the time, gave me a good enough reason to live. But my horses? I would move mountains for them! My doctor, friends, and family were so happy to see me getting better, but what my parents didn’t know was that all my horses were giving me this incredible drive. I’m sure my 20 pills a day and all the other things I was doing were helping, but I truly believe the best “medicine” for me was all the equine therapy I got with my four horses and the art therapy through painting my new herd.
High Hopes for the Summer
I had high hopes of competing on my jumper in at least two shows per month this summer, all bridleless. I also wanted to return to the capital for the bridleless championships, but unfortunately, I’m struggling with a little lupus flare and am currently just starting to ride and train again. Until I can commit more time to groundwork and riding, I am taking this time to focus on my art business so I can invest in my next business venture, which is offering equestrians interested in my method a riding holiday.
Planning a Tackless Riding Holiday Center
In my week-long riding clinics, students would be learning about developing a relationship with their horse and how to go bitless, and maybe for some riders, go bridleless. I will incorporate painting outside with my horses loose in the paddock as a way for new riders to get to know my horses before working with them on the ground or riding. In being open to letting their emotions out on canvas, they will be honest with themselves about their feelings. They will be free to express themselves through colors and texture, or, focus on a subject.
The point of this exercise is to open yourself up on canvas, be vulnerable, and honest. Once they can be honest with themselves, my horses will be honest and willing about working with them. It’s all about letting go of whatever it is that’s holding you back, allowing that tension to fade, and feeling free. So, to help people relax, I will also be proving the opportunity for some painting, kayaking, and sight-seeing. Rider will also have bareback bitless lessons (bridleless for those who feel comfortable), trail riding through the forest, fields, and through a river.
My goal with these riding holidays is to inform riders of different methods, show them techniques from each, and allow them to develop their own way of working with horses. When they get back home to their horses, I want them to have the tools to be able to use what method(s) suit them, their goals, and their horse.
How the Social Media Community Helped Me
My favorite social media platform is Instagram. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I’ve developed some amazing friendships over the past few years. It’s amazing how easy it is to find people who are passionate about the same things as you are. For example, I am an avid bridleless rider, dabble in natural horsemanship and positive reinforcement, am head over heels crazy about shires and appaloosas, and love art. I’ve met some of these Instagram friends in person and some I just talk to on a regular basis, even more than my friends here in Poland, though we’ve never met!
When I’m going through a hard time and post about it, I always have people reaching out. It’s amazing because if I have a moral question about horse training, I can ask questions and get responses. When I share my horses’ hoof or health issues, I have people who went through the same thing and reach out. When I need legal advice, I have a friend who can help! And when I need advice about stallions, there are friends to help! I am so happy I’ve connected with so many amazing equestrian girl bosses!
Heal With a Horse Through Positivity and the Right Mindset
I have accomplished a lot with my horses and that was thanks to listening to my body and changing my lifestyle. Doctors didn’t think I had a chance of ever riding again, but I was determined and somehow, in the midst of all the negativity, I stayed positive. I never would’ve expected to be competing again, and competing bridleless! Not only that, but also training young, green horses and starting them undersaddle.
Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have and what I couldn’t do, I cherished the things I could still do. Having my mobility taken away from me and uncertainty about how long I had before I kicked the bucket made me do a 180 in the way I perceived life. I realized how lucky I was to have experienced all the things I did and stopped thinking about unfair the world was because I couldn’t have this or that. All those things became insignificant.
I hung on to the the hope of being able to literally just walk on my own again. I fantasized about getting to drive, getting to work, and just being independent. Furthermore, I entertained the idea of working with horses again so I worked hard to reduce swelling in by body and pushed through the pain to exercise my joints. I reduced the swelling with medications, yes, but also by changing my diet, went to a physical therapist and massage therapist for years, did acupuncture, fascial manipulation therapy, and focused on using more organic and natural products. Furthermore, I started working for myself as a private tutor and, eventually, a full time artist.
The Right Focus
When I started putting more focus on my body instead of working myself into the ground, I started to see a change. I went from a vegetable in a wheelchair to bridleless competitor in just three years. I understand that everyone’s case is different, but I believe that positivity can have a great impact on anyone’s life. My advice to anyone struggling with an autoimmune disease or a setback in their life is to take the opportunity to re-evaluate what you need on an emotional level and what your body needs on a physical level. Change can be intimidating, but it can also be very rewarding! Be courageous, stay positive, and treat your body with tenderness!
To keep an eye on her great horse adventures and training successes, you should follow her equestrian-focused Instagram.
Horses are incredible creatures and can help us to overcome problems and obstacles in our lives. The healing power of horses helped Sarah to fight her depression and find courage to live the life she wants in her article: How Endurance Riding Healed Me.