Horses are known to have the power to heal people emotionally and physically, and when they come pint-sized, it can make the experience less intimidating and even more fun.
Valerie Banks Amster became involved with a miniature horse troop, A Little Magic, near her home in Warrenton, Virginia, a few years ago. She began traveling to nearby schools to let children meet the minis, and she longed to have one of her own.
Although she was a teacher for many years, these days, Amster, 49, primarily works as a horse show announcer in the Northern Virginia area. When a judge friend, Dede Bach-Shumate, needed to find a home for her mini Lola, Amster thought Lola would be the perfect project to train as a therapy horse.
She found a farm to keep her, picked Lola up in the back of her SUV, and got to work grooming and desensitizing her.
“A friend of mine who uses a scooter for mobility and also uses a service dog came out to the barn, and she knows horses and therapeutic riding. She was a safe person to try Lola out with,” Amster said. “[Lola] was amazing. She went straight up to the scooter, and in 10 minutes, [my friend] was holding the dog’s leash and Lola’s lead in the same hand and using her other hand to drive the scooter. [They were] going down the aisle with the dog on one side of her and Lola on the other, and Lola was acting like she’d been doing this her whole life. When that was over, Lola went and laid her head in her lap, and that’s when I said, ‘OK, yes, this is a therapy horse.’ ”
Lola was certificated in October 2019 and went to work with A Little Magic, doing school visits to children with physical and mental delays.
“Lola was great at those, but I found out at the Fauquier Senior Center holiday party that her favorite audience to work with is senior citizens,” said Amster. “She just lit up for them. She was so happy in that environment. We still do school visits as well.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, Amster kept taking Lola to parks in a 2005 minivan she bought with 350,000 miles to “keep her in a groove.”
“Training a horse to get into a minivan is also an interesting challenge!” she said.
They were eventually able to do some window visits at nursing homes, and by April of this year were able to start visiting schools. They recently went on Lola’s first hospital visit—her first project indoors in 15 months.
“She was stellar,” said Amster. “She was an absolute pro. I could not have been more surprised and impressed and awed with her.”
Amster had started working on her guitar skills about three years ago after a 35-year hiatus, and during the pandemic, she was inspired to start writing songs.
“That kind of lit up a fire in me,” she said. “I’ve been working hard at it, and I also started taking singing lessons, and I took a songwriting workshop in January 2020.”
She came out of the workshop with a dozen songs, four of which were about Lola, which inspired a children’s album, “I Am Lola,” to be released soon.
“I wrote them from her perspective and talked about her journey from being on a farm with her foal to becoming a therapy horse,” she said. “This winter I got a producer and recorded the piano and guitar tracks myself in my house and sent them off.”
A former Spanish teacher, Amster wanted to record a bilingual version, so she found two Latina singers to record a Spanish version. A friend who’s a designer will illustrate an accompanying book, which will have chapters for each of the songs.
Amster is also hoping to write albums and books for two of her past horses and about the farm where Lola lives. You can learn more about the album and book at horsetales.org.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our June 7, 2021, issue.
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