Written by Beth Rasin | Photos by Jordan Koepke
She’s made appearances at farmers markets, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes, plus at least half the schools in Hunt Country. She’s inspired songs, books, letters, and drawings. She’s Lola, a chestnut miniature horse with a national therapy certification, a Dodge minivan, and a penchant for brightening the mood wherever she goes.
“She’s done a Christmas party in D.C. for the neediest kids in the District Heights area, who were bussed in from their schools last year, and the first thing they saw was a horse, so we love doing things like that,” says Lola’s owner and handler Valerie Banks Amster. Amster found Lola in the summer of 2018 and earned a Pet Partners certification with her in October of 2019. “We’ll go to Old Town Warrenton for farmers markets, National Night Out, wherever they call me if I can go.”
After an event, the cards soon follow — letters written by elementary students, drawings on construction paper, etched out by crayon or marker, lots of hearts. They express hope to see her again, and, almost always, declarations of their love for her. Some ask questions about her, express awe at how fast she can run, or share their own concerns, revealing, for instance, the loss of a loved one. “You’d not believe the letters I have. I put them on her social media because I think it’s really important to share. Some of the things the kids will tell Lola are heartbreaking or funny or hopeful or what have you. Sometimes it’s how hard they’ve worked to achieve things,” Amster shares.
More often, though, Lola’s transformative effect on her audience isn’t put into words. It’s the way a child’s face lights up, like with one little girl, as her mother guides her hand from her wheelchair to press against a soft, furry muzzle.
“[The child] couldn’t see, but she knew she was petting a horse and was just completely transformed,” Amster remembers. “Lola is magical, and it’s indescribable really. It happens pretty much every time she’s out, that someone is having a moment just because she’s there.”
Amster, of Warrenton, Virginia, had volunteered with a group in Culpeper called A Little Magic, helping them take mini therapy horses to classrooms and nursing homes. When the opportunity arose to get Lola, Amster quickly discovered that she would be a great therapy animal.
She first tested the chestnut roan, who’s now 17, with a friend who uses a scooter for mobility and has a service dog. “[My friend] came to the barn, drove her scooter down the ramp, and came into the barnyard to meet Lola,” Amster shares. “Within minutes she was scooting down the barn aisle, with her dog on one side and the horse on her other. Lola was walking by the scooter like she’d done it her entire life, and I don’t think she’d ever seen a scooter before. Then they came back, and Lola reached over and put her head in her lap — you can’t train that; it’s instinctive.”
Still, it took extensive coaching to expose Lola to the wide array of situations she could encounter as a service animal, including elevators, and to develop a repertoire of tricks like crossing her legs, shaking hands, stepping up on a mounting block, and jumping. She practiced socializing on trips to Tractor Supply, Home Depot, Petco, and parks.
On the road, Amster makes sure to advocate for Lola when she’s working — ensuring she has time for bathroom breaks, and isn’t asked to jump too many fences or put in a situation where she’s uncomfortable. And Lola, in turn, excels at her job.
At P.B. Smith Elementary in Warrenton, children run up to greet her, and Amster sees a teacher petting her, grinning wide at the camera. “She changes people’s moods by just being there,” Amster says. “A school social worker might come out and ask the kids to give commands to Lola because it’s less scary than speaking to a teacher. When we do memory care work [at senior centers], she goes in and puts her head on their bed, and they get some animal contact, which relieves stress and improves mood. Kids in multiple needs classrooms can walk with her, weave through cones. Some kids who don’t want to run will happily run if they can be next to Lola. We have butterfly clips they can practice their grasp on or put in her mane. We support whatever their teacher wants them to explore.”
As Lola’s therapy tours were expanding, Amster decided to return to the guitar lessons she’d started decades earlier. In 2020, she realized that of all the songs she’d penned in a songwriting class, her favorites were about Lola. So she found a vocalist, recorded the guitar and piano in her home, and had a producer put them together with the vocals. Someone suggested the songs would make a good children’s book, and she reached out to Lori Blakewell, a friend and children’s author, who turned each song into a chapter of a book. “I Am Lola,” which is also the name of the CD, was released in 2021.
“In the book, Lola has times she feels strong, hopeful, determined, or loving,” Amster explains. Those emotions are masterfully captured in both Blackwell’s writing and songs of the same title on Amster’s album: “I Am Strong,” “I Am Hopeful,” “I Am Determined,” and “I Am Loving.”
Then, when Amster lost her “normal-sized” horse, Danny, she remembers, “The next morning I woke up and said that’s the next album, because he has things to say, too, and Lori wrote another book.” The “I Am Danny” book and CD debuted in November of 2023. Both books and albums are available in English and Spanish at horsetales.org.
And Amster has more plans in store. “I’ve done some singles [about] when people have lost horses that were meaningful to them, and then there’s a pair of ducks at the barn that are hilarious, and I’m going to do a song about them,” she says. “I like to use music to connect children and horses — the more we can expose them to these animals at a young age, the less fear they are going to have and the more they will advocate for them when they are the ones making decisions.”
Between the creation, production, and design of the book and music, translation into Spanish, and the book signings or festivals she’s attended, Amster has enjoyed supporting the businesses of her friends, new and old. “I’ve been able to involve and promote so many women and their businesses through Horse Tales, which I love,” she explains. “When women support women, amazing things happen.”
Almost as amazing are the things that happen when Lola steps out of her minivan, as students run to greet her or a hand reaches out to stroke her. “It’s almost like there’s a threshold — someone can be feeling down, sick, angry, and this horse appears, who is maybe 29 inches tall on a good day, and their mood instantly changes,” Amster reiterates. “I think horses are the greatest conduits of earth energy we have. There’s something about just touching her that puts people in a different state of mind.”
See Lola at Laurel Ridge Community College in Warrenton on January 24 at 10 a.m. or find more appearances at facebook.com/lolatheminihorse or on Instagram at @lola.theminiaturetherapyhorse. ML
Published in the January 2024 issue of Middleburg Life.