By Britney Grover
Equestrian artist Kasia Bukowska doesn’t just love horses; her passion has led her to relocate across the world, attracted her now-husband across an immense language barrier, given her the fortitude to overcome debilitating illness and driven her to create and market her unique equestrian art.
“When he first took me for a pony ride, I don’t think my dad realized that my entire life would revolve around horses,” Kasia said. What her father had planned as one brief ride for his 3-year-old daughter at Griffith Park in Los Angeles turned into six hours that firmly set the course of Kasia’s life. “When the staff tried to take me off the pony, I screamed bloody murder and grabbed as much mane as I could. I was there until closing that day; after that I went every weekend and was there all day. If I was forced to give other kids a chance to ride, I stood staring at the horses googly-eyed through the fence.”
Though she’s now grown, living halfway around the world and enduring incredible life trials, one thing will never change: Kasia still won’t let anyone or anything separate her from horses.
When she was 8 years old, Kasia began taking riding lessons with Leslie Figge Stables at Los Angeles Children’s Riding Center. “I most loved going to Saturday camp,” she remembered. “I enjoyed everything about being around horses and developed friendships that are still going strong to this day. I started riding English and dreamed of jumping.”
Kasia entered her first walk-trot competition at Elvenstar in Moorpark, California, and was competing in long-stirrup by age 13. “For my 13th birthday, my parents got me my first horse, Junior,” Kasia said. “He was my entire world. I loved him so much I decided to come up with a symbol that incorporated his initials, JR, and my initials, KB. I wrote it on all of my things, including signing my artwork in art class with it. To this day I use that symbol to sign my paintings.”
Art had always been of interest to Kasia, and she took art classes in middle and high school. Even then, horses came first. “In high school, I toyed with the idea of going to art school. However, being an equestrian, I needed to make sure I could afford what my life revolved around: horses,” she said. “Always hearing about ‘starving artists’ and not getting much support from family and friends, I tabled that idea and decided to focus my attention on another subject that could make me money: biology. As a sophomore at Arcadia High School, I decided I wanted to become an equine vet. I continued to take art classes, even as an elective in college. It was something I loved to do.”
Meanwhile, Kasia continued to pursue riding while living in L.A. She owned multiple horses, took lessons and competed with goals of someday competing in grand prix, but those goals were just out of reach. “Being an ambitious equestrian is one thing, but being able to afford the competitive lifestyle to go with that motivation is another,” she said. “My family was not in a position to buy me the type of horse that could really make strides in my riding. I did, however, import one horse from Poland to be my competition horse, named Rio.”
Kasia had spent summers on vacation in Poland, riding and taking lessons. Both her parents were from Poland and had moved to the United States as teenagers. “I saw the quality of horses, the style of riding and cost of being a competitive equestrian,” she said. “Unlike in Los Angeles, competing at higher levels in Poland was in our budget. I became googly-eyed again! I believed there was much more opportunity to improve my riding. But moving to a country where I didn’t speak the language and had no friends? That was a tough decision to make.”
A Game-Changing Move
Once again, it was her love of horses that made up her mind — this time, her love of one horse in particular. “The trainer we bought Rio from had a stunning gray yearling,” Kasia said. “The summers I spent in Poland, I would often sit and watch him out in the field, daydreaming of an equine love story when, maybe 20 years down the road, I would finally be able to call him my own.”
Kasia’s equine love story came true much sooner than expected when, just six years later, Slawny was put up for sale. “He was bred for the trainer’s very talented daughter and was only put up for sale because he was such a difficult horse,” Kasia explained. “It was nearly impossible to make progress in his training when he would rear up in protest at competitions and fall on the ground with his rider. Not the ideal horse to buy when you want to move up in your riding, but he was my dream horse! Long story short, when I heard he was for sale, I packed up my stuff and left Los Angeles.”
As it turned out, fate had more for Kasia in Poland than just a promising riding career. Another credit to her passion for horses, Kasia met her now-husband at the barn. “My husband was a mounted police officer at the barn where I was training and competing on Slawny,” she said. “He said what attracted him to me was how passionate I was about horses and riding. My husband found it cute that I was at the barn when he got to work and there when he returned. He said other girls came to the barn, tacked up, rode and left. But when I came to the barn, I was there for hours, even if I didn’t get on.”
The romance budded despite a huge obstacle. “I still didn’t speak Polish and my husband didn’t speak English,” Kasia said. “I had a terrible language barrier I couldn’t get over, but when he initiated conversation asking me about my horse, I tried! He was very patient, and Google Translate was our best friend. I’m still not fluent in Polish but can communicate well. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to master Polish grammar, though!”
Their language barrier soon became a trifling obstacle in comparison to the one Kasia had to overcome, with incalculable help from her husband.
An Unexpected Trial
“I was a student at Kozmiński University in Warsaw, riding five times a week, competing once or twice a month, taking weekly go-karting lessons, attending CrossFit classes, Zumba, and a whole slew of other classes offered at the gym,” Kasia said. “I was very active and exercised about 10 to 15 hours a week. Then in 2014, I came down with the flu. After I started feeling better, I went right back to preparing for the competition I had less than a week later, of course!”
A few days before the show, Kasia’s joints suddenly began to swell. “Within one week, I couldn’t walk and was confined to a small room in a hospital. I became dependent on others for things I took for granted, like sitting up in bed, getting dressed and brushing my teeth. I was admitted to three hospitals in Warsaw and none of them were able to diagnose me. I went to nearly 20 private doctors and still didn’t get a diagnosis.”
Being completely crippled and torn away from her horse, especially without a diagnosis, felt insurmountable. “There was a point I felt like there was no hope for me,” Kasia shared. “But my husband supported me the whole way. I’ll never forget when I was in the hospital and he was racing around with me in the wheelchair, and I started crying thinking I’d never feel a horse’s canter again. I felt owning Sławny was pointless and a waste of money.”
Kasia’s husband knew just what to say. “He looked me in the eye and said he’d build me a barn with his bare hands, and promised I’d get my dream Shire. He said my horses would hang out in the field behind our future home and I’d be able to see them whenever I wanted. I kept arguing I wouldn’t be able to ride and it’d be such a waste to keep them and do nothing with them. In all his patience, he lovingly assured me I’d be busy with the horses — he explained how I’d have to give the horses kisses and carrots and that would last about all day.
“I asked what I would do if I was still in a wheelchair, and he responded saying we’d get me a pink, pimped-out wheelchair and he would wheel me to the barn every day. He said I had a job to do and that I did have something to look forward to. That’s when I knew he was the one.”
Recovering With Horses
During a flare-up after several undiagnosed months, Kasia flew back to Los Angeles where she was admitted to USC and finally diagnosed with lupus and fibromyalgia.
“The hardest thing to accept about my diagnosis wasn’t that I couldn’t take care of myself, but that I couldn’t ride or be with my horse,” Kasia shared. “I didn’t even get to smell that wonderful horse smell at the barn for months on end! I searched ‘how to train a horse from a wheelchair’ and read many inspirational stories. The one I was most inspired by was about equestrian Amberley Snyder. I read how she became paralyzed in a car accident but defied the odds, got back in the saddle (with some accommodations) and competed! I just wanted to be around horses. So what better way to be around horses and feel their spirit than to paint what I feel though portraits of horses? For me, painting horses was a way to stay connected and ‘be with’ horses without ever leaving my bed.”
It was hard for the incredibly active Kasia to slow down, but painting, her new connection with horses, kept her going. She submitted to intense treatments involving as many as 20 pills per day and working up her strength through gentle exercises and meditation. It took 2 ½ years to be able to come off of steroids, but Kasia is proudly down to two medications and trying to be patient to eradicate even those. “I’m in remission now, though I still have days that prompt me to slow down and take care of my body. I try to do yoga and meditate, though I don’t enjoy it, because I feel its benefits.” Kasia said. “I much prefer exercises like CrossFit and Zumba, but slowing my mind and my breathing is important in my recovery, so I do it.”
Kasia’s progress has been nearly miraculous, and Kasia is quick to give credit where she thinks it’s due. “Both my doctor in Poland, who saw me at my worst in the rheumatoid hospital, and the doctor at USC, whom I consult every time I visit L.A., have been astonished with my bloodwork and the physical progress in just three years,” she said. “I can attest that it was not only the medications that helped me in my recovery, but also diet, exercise, meditation and, most importantly, horses. There are invaluable psychological benefits of working with horses, and I’m convinced my horses gave me the wherewithal to overcome this obstacle in my life.”
Set Up for the Future
Kasia’s reputation as an artist has grown and enabled her to add three horses to her “collection,” which are often the subjects of her paintings. Slawny, the gray horse that first drew her to Poland, features most frequently. Draft horses, which have always had a special place in Kasia’s heart, are another trend: Kasia currently owns two Shires, and hopes someday to start a rescue to save drafts from slaughter, train them to be ridden and find them homes as ideal trail or pleasure horses.
With her condition under control for the moment, Kasia is looking forward to exhibiting her art at international horse or art shows in 2018 — and getting back into the show ring herself. “I plan to compete on Slawny this summer in some little schooling shows in the .80m and 1.0m jumpers, just for fun,” she said. Kasia also hopes to take one of her other horses to a dressage schooling show, and has high hopes for the jumping potential of her young mare, Lulu. She’s training all of her horses herself, and keeps them in her backyard.
“My husband said he would build me a barn with his bare hands, and that’s exactly what he did,” Kasia said. “I have no words to describe how lucky I feel to have found someone who supports me and my horses so much. He and his father built the barn where I keep my horses now. I couldn’t be happier!”
For more information, find Kasia on Facebook @kasia.bukowska.art