(This story was first published in the Dec. 27, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
As the horse followed its trainer nonchalantly through the farmhouse in Greenfield, N.H, past the television set and couch to watch Nik Kokal play a round of pool, you wouldn’t know that less than 100 days prior he had never even been near a human.
Nik and his brother, Kris Kokal, have made a name for themselves taming the wildest horses around — mustangs.
In 2009, the Kokal brothers participated in the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge — a contest that rounds up 100 mustangs in Nevada and New Mexico and gives trainers 100 days to train them before competing in Fort Worth, Texas.
The brothers were featured in the documentary film, “Wild Horse Wild Ride,” which follows six trainers through the ups and downs of training their mustangs. The Kokals explained their experiences at Billings Farm and Museum last week.
|Nik Kokal (left) and his brother, Kris sit on mustangs that they tamed. The brothers competed in the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge in 2009, where they had 100 days to train a mustang from the wild.
“They can adapt to anything,” Kris said. “They have the best sprit we have ever seen. You are drawn to that power and fight with them.”
Neither Kris nor Nik had extensive equine knowledge before the competition, but the brothers found themselves holding their own against some of the top trainers in the United States. Nik, who was just 17 when he filled out the application, was the youngest competitor.
The movie documents how the trainers develop friendship and understanding with their mustangs and shows the Kokals’ determination to not give up on the horses.
“You can’t make them do anything and you have to work really hard to develop that trust,” Nik said. “None of them are willing to do that at the beginning.”
In just three months, Nik’s horse, Ranahan, trusted him so much that he stood calmly while Nik did flips off his back in a field. Kris’s horse, Sioux, was so mellow that he listened to Kris even with a bandana covering his eyes. It was a feat considering that most of their equine knowledge comes from simply spending time with horses.
Growing up, Kris and Nik spent their days watching horses in the fields, mimicking their movements and learning all they could about them from afar.
The brothers, who were homeschooled, were taught that they had to earn everything they wanted. Part of their homeschool lesson when they were 10 and 12 was building a horse barn. Kris and Nik measured the size and configured the plumbing and all the electrical wiring.
The brothers’ passion for horses blossomed from there.
The Kokals stared their own horse caring and training business, Horse-Tenders, LLC when they were 11 and 13.
“They started exhibiting these natural talents that are just remarkable,” said their father, Andrej.
Kris and Nik spent all day on horses — stopping to do a school lesson in the fields, and then riding back to the house, talking about what they had learned along the way.
“They were getting constant exposure to horses and the more they did it, the more they started developing their own approaches and ways to deal with certain situations,” Andrej said.
They eventually went to farrier school and then paid their way through Keene State College, training and shoeing horses in between classes.
Soon, they became recognized for training horses that nobody wanted to deal with. They were teaching mustangs similar lessons they learned in homeschool.
“You didn’t teach with fear,” their mother, Stephanie Kokal said. “You teach something with the goal of learning, achieving (and) getting better.”
Kris and Nik let their horses come around on their terms and didn’t pressure them with bits, spurs and metal shoes.
“The whole way they teach is different,” Stephanie said. “Their goals are different. They aren’t there to prove anything to anybody.”
The bond that they developed with the mustangs after the competition was so strong that now the Kokals specialize in training them. They currently have 17 mustangs on their 300-acre ranch in New Hampshire. Most of them were before deemed problem horses that nobody wanted to ride or train.
“They couldn’t just walk away from (the mustangs), they really understood their plight and understood what was happening and wanted to try to make a difference for them,” Stephanie said.
The Kokals don’t give up on what’s broken or damaged.
Two years after Kris and Nik competed in the mustang challenge, their father, a retired war veteran who spent 24 years in the military, started a nonprofit organization, which sees parallels between warriors and mustangs.
“They are being ripped away from what they know and then have to deal with that trauma, having to then adapt, overcome and reintegrate,” Andrej said. “The mustangs have a lot to show others who are experiencing similar challenges with how to cope effectively.”
Through HorseTenders Mustang Foundation, Inc., the Kokals match mustangs to veterans with the belief that both will learn to adapt together.
Nik is now studying to be a veterinarian at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, one of the top vet schools in the world, while Kris maintains the business they co-founded at home. They plan to continue working with mustangs in the future — learning from the horses as the horses learn from them.
“The horse will always teach me something that I will past on to the next horse,” Kris said.
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