Lola the Mini Therapy Horse heals through her presence, songs, and stories
We live in horse country where you can find a horse around every corner. But they’re generally of the larger sort for riding, and they generally don’t ride in minivans. Meet a local horse with a different purpose: Lola the Miniature Therapy Horse.
There are a lot of differences between Lola and her larger equine counterparts. First of all, she only weighs 250 pounds and stands 29 inches tall. With no need for a horse trailer, she just hops — by herself — into her owner’s minivan, which is set up just like a stall with rubber mats and wood shavings. And she has a very different sort of job.
As a miniature therapy horse, Lola visits schools, nursing homes, retirement facilities, and hospitals with her owner and handler Valerie Amster to engage with the students and residents.
Valerie, who lives in Warrenton, met Lola in June of 2018 after her foal was weaned, and she brought Lola to the Fauquier County farm where she kept her riding horse. Already a volunteer with the local organization A Little Magic Mini Therapy Horse Team, Valerie began evaluating Lola to see if she would be a good fit for the work right away. “The minis have to have many specific qualities to be certified as a therapy animal,” says Valerie. “They have to be extremely quiet and gentle, and they have to have an affinity for the work.”
Valerie started working with Lola on basics, giving her lots of attention and handling, lots of grooming, and as many new experiences as she could find. This is very important, that a therapy horse be able to take new experiences in stride and not panic when they encounter anything they haven’t seen before, including hearing noise, being indoors, and stepping on different types of flooring that might feel funny under their hooves. Lola lives at Sligo Stables off Old Auburn Road in Warrenton, which is an excellent place for new encounters since they have other types of livestock and animals, including two ponies, a warmblood horse, two ducks, two rabbits, and chickens for her to interact with. Her biggest training challenge? “Potty training, definitely,” says Valerie, “ since horses do not generally learn that.”
But even that was accomplished, and after tagging along with other therapy minis a few times, Lola was certified by Pet Partners in October of 2019 and classified as “predictable”. They are now working towards the “complex” rating, which will allow them to visit patients in their rooms in hospitals instead of just in the common areas.
On the Road
Lola and Valerie’s first official therapy gigs were at schools. Outfitted in her “Therapy Horse in Training” tag, they visited elementary schools in Culpeper and Prince William with A Little Magic, working with kids with both mental and physical special needs and developmental issues. Valerie explains, “We’d set up right outside, and the students would come out to us. The kids would groom Lola, which helps with their fine motor skills. They’d put butterfly clips in her mane, which gives them pincer-grasp practice. We’d set up an obstacle course for Lola and give the kids a second lead line so they could help guide her through it, weaving through cones and maybe even a little jump. They just loved it.”
Expanding Lola’s Horizons
Lola was great with the kids, but then Valerie discovered Lola’s real calling. “I took her in December of 2019 to Fauquier Senior Center for their holiday party. She lit up like I’ve never seen her before. She loved those seniors. She had her head in their laps, standing stock still for them to pet and interact with her. She was just in her element. I realized that she really loves seniors. We do the school visits still and she’s great, but seniors are definitely her thing. I find people in assisted living facilities that have had horses before. They get teary-eyed. They just light up and start telling you about their experiences as kids with horses and ponies. You can just see in the way they touch her, stroking her mane or holding on to her halter, they‘re right back with it again. It’s so beautiful to be able to give them that experience.”
Valerie says, “What’s wonderful about Lola and getting the word out about her is that horses offer so much as therapy animals. They’re often overlooked because they’re not as common as dogs in pet therapy. But horses are just such great channelers of earth energy. They just bring that. And they bring it in a minivan. It’s so convenient. So they make that pet therapy energy that we already know is so beneficial but magnified. The depth of interaction I see people have with Lola compared to the dogs I’ve observed is just remarkable. It’s just a beautiful moment.”
Valerie and Lola travel within a radius of about an hour to be at locations in person, but Valerie wanted to extend Lola’s reach beyond and connect with people everywhere. It was important to Valerie to share her because “Lola makes people happy when they see her. You can’t look at her and not feel something.” And I am Lola came to be.
She started with music, which Valerie considers another form of healing energy. Three years ago, Valerie picked up her guitar for the first time in 35 years and started playing again. She took a songwriting workshop where she wrote a dozen songs for practice. Four of these, her favorites, were about Lola. “I took those four songs and spent the next eight months working with them, polishing up demo versions. Then, in November, I hired a producer and voice professionals. On the album, I play the guitar and the piano, but I consider myself a very beginner singer, and in my opinion, my voice is not ready to do the vocals myself.” A Spanish teacher by profession, Valerie decided to make the album bilingual. She found two Latina vocalists with beautiful voices to record the Spanish tracks. “So now people can see her and learn about her and enjoy her music wherever they are,” she says.
Lyric excerpt from “I am Hopeful”
I'm a miniature horse with a story to tell
You see, I've had times when things didn't go well
And if you've ever struggled and had to push through
Then I'll share my story, ’cause it's also for you.
But there’s more
“Once I got that moving along, I realized that Lola’s stories should be in writing as well. My longtime friend Lori Blakewell, a Warrenton children’s book author, wrote a preface and a chapter to go with each song. The text in the book is more than the lyrics in the songs. The stories go along with the song and those experiences. Lori does a great job making kids think and feel and ask questions. She’s gone deeper than you can go in a song.” I am Lola has four chapters corresponding to the songs in the album: “I Am Strong”, “I Am Hopeful”, “I Am Determined”, and “I Am Loving.” The books will be available this fall.
What’s next for Valerie?
“There will be a series. I’ve already started writing the next album, I am Danny. Danny was one of my previous horses, a real individual character, a palomino with one and a half blue eyes and a really loud neigh. While the theme of Lola’s album is perseverance, sticking with it, and working through things, I am Danny will be about being yourself and accepting yourself the way you are. Then I have one planned called I am Boo, which will be about unconditional love and adaptability, and the next one will be about Sligo Stables, which will be about the menagerie at Sligo Stables. It will tell the stories of Lola and the other animals and all the adventures they have. I’ve got more ideas too, but those are the ones I’m working on right now.”
Valerie concludes, “I’m too old to do stuff I don’t love. If I’m going to put my time and energy into something now, it’s going to be something that is really valuable to me and I think is valuable to others.”
Album release party
August 14, 12-2 p.m.
Johnny Monarch’s in Marshall
Live performances of the songs and a special appearance by Lola, weather permitting.
Book release party
September 11, 11 am-noon
Old Town Open Book
A reading by the author and a visit with Lola