In order to have a better understanding and insight into the HorseTenders Mustang Foundation, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, it is essential to become acquainted with the Kokal family.
Andrej and Stephanie Kokal (married for over 30 years) and their three children, Erik, Kris, and Nik have endured life’s challenges and traumas including those associated with life in the military. Understanding the upheavals and unintended consequences that come with military service, combat and times of war, the Kokal family can truly empathize, and hold in the highest regard, our US service members and their families.
Andrej spent 8 years active duty, 8 years in the Air National Guard, and 8 in the USAF Reserve as a combat proven Fighter Pilot, Instructor, and Mission Commander. Having retired after over 24 years of service, he is still currently in the IRR (Ready Reserve). Stephanie is a veteran herself (combat air controller) and a “military brat” – the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran who was killed in an F-16 accident after having served three separate combat tours.
Andrej’s unit was activated on Christmas morning, 1990. Two short days later, on December 27th, he had to leave his family and career behind to answer the call of duty. He and Stephanie had three young sons all under the age of 4, a new mortgage, and Stephanie’s mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer days before his deployment to Desert Shield/Storm. As with most service members, Andrej and his family wrote the blank check which, if required, would be paid for with a life. Having been activated from his American Airlines pilot career by the National Guard, Andrej and his family fully understand the challenges posed by separation, duty, and reintegration.
In addition to their military connection, this family also shares a special bond with horses, and with the American Mustang in particular. As a family in 2001, they began HorseTenders LLC, a comprehensive horse training, barefoot trimming and non-sedation equine dentistry business. The two youngest sons, Kris and Nik have showed amazing ability working with horses and developed their nationally and internationally recognized “Developing Mettle without Metal”™ training approaches. No bits, metal shoes or spurs are utilized with these totally non-punitive training approaches and methodologies.
In 2008 and 2009, Kris and Nik both successfully competed in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a national invitation-only competition. Kris and Nik were among the youngest competitors (Nik was THE youngest) amid an elite group of trainers who had 100 days to turn a wild mustang into a valued companion and fellow competitor who would willingly undertake a variety of competitive tasks and ultimately be well suited for adoption to a new home. With this experience, the Kokal family came to respect and have true appreciation for the plight of the legendary American Mustang.
In the fall of 2011, Andrej was diagnosed with a very rare form of bone marrow and blood cancer, which is speculated to have been a result of his military service. Facing increasingly unfavorable odds, he underwent very aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, massively depleting his blood counts making the probability of recovery somewhat diminished. However, little did they know their challenges were just beginning. Within a week of completing his chemotherapy, Andrej’s colon massively ruptured. He was rushed into surgery, which resulted in a colostomy with little chance of recovery due to his depressed immune system. In these darkest hours, Andrej decided that, given his new chance at life, quitting was not an option and that he was going to spend every spare moment of his recovery trying to establish a non-profit organization to help promote the welfare of the American mustang and, in the process, reach out to help our most esteemed and honored US service members and their families.
Defying all odds, Andrej focused all his energies into developing, organizing, and implementing the HorseTenders Mustang Foundation, Inc. (HMF) and slowly but steadily began recovering from both his cancer and colon challenges. He was able to reverse his colostomy and drive his cancer into remission. Andrej’s unrelenting motivation and incomparable drive was enjoined by his family and others willing to share in this vision, resulting in the creation of the HMF. At the heart of HMF is the drive to establish an enduring organization that will improve the lives and prospects of as many American Mustangs as possible while concurrently working to enhance the human condition, especially that of US service members and their families.
Back in the 1990’s there was no effective support for the families of the deployed. This is not unlike the challenges met by today’s US service members and their families. There is still little to no help available for service members trying to reintegrate with their families and a civilian society. Post Traumatic Brain Injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (“Shell Shock”), along with the various other challenges that surface with a veteran and their families upon completion of their military service were, and still are, largely ignored. Family members who left as high school and college students or “normalized” civilians with careers, returned as warriors. Families and soldiers were simply expected to tough it out, alone.
It is the mission of the HMF to provide effective, engaging, and fun programs to successfully address these issues.
Our service members share a kindred spirit with the legendary American Mustang. Mustangs, more than any domesticated breeds, have a unique perspective, as do our Military service members. Both are required to adapt, cope, persevere, learn to survive and deal with their herd, just as a service member would with his family. Horses and humans display remarkable behavioral parallels, especially when dealing with life’s challenges. At HMF, we’ve discovered there is an amazing synergy when these two groups come together.
As a result, the entire Kokal family has pulled together its extensive, nationally recognized abilities working with horses, in particular the American Mustang. With over 30 years experience providing consultation to corporations and businesses on the human dynamic, leadership, and effective operational management, Andrej guided the development of truly unique Mustang Assisted Programs (MAP) – all built on the foundation of our strong family and core values.