Sitting in her office overlooking a large indoor horse-riding arena, Andrea Pastoor ('20) says that she keeps having to pinch herself.
That’s because she can hardly believe that she works as a counsellor helping kids with autism and their families—through horse therapy.
For Andrea, a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) who graduated in 2020 with a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy (ACTS Seminaries of Trinity Western University), this counselling role is a dream job—and a surprise.
“To have landed where I am now is nothing short of a miracle and God's hand on my life for sure!” said Andrea.
Andrea has now been at A&T Equestrian supporting kids with autism for a year.
She is the centre’s first on-site therapist and counsellor.
Neighbours connect over the gift of turkey dinner
It all started with one stranger’s act of kindness.
During the first Christmas of the pandemic in 2020, Andrea found herself alone and geographically distanced from family and friends. At this time, a generous neighbour in Andrea’s community posted a message to residents in the area offering to gift anyone interested a free turkey dinner.
Andrea responded and received one of these nourishing meals, packaged and delivered by her neighbour, Rebeckah. Upon meeting for the first time, the two strangers made an instant connection.
“I feel so proud of the children that I have had the opportunity to work with. Seeing their growth and resiliency this past year—it truly blows me away.”
Serendipitously, Rebeckah is the program director at A&T Equestrian, a horse boarding and training centre in Surrey, B.C. Around this time, Andrea also reconnected with a long-time friend who happened to work at the same equestrian centre, Crystal.
After learning that Andrea had just graduated from a counselling program, Rebeckah and Crystal soon presented Andrea with a surprise invitation: to join A&T Equestrian as a counsellor for kids with autism.
Embarking on a steep but joy-filled learning curve
As it turns out, working around horses—and counselling kids with autism through horse therapy—were all things that Andrea had never dreamed of doing.
“Would you like to work with horses?” Crystal’s invitation began.
In responding, Andrea laughed and said, “But I have ridden a horse maybe only five times in my life!"
“That’s O.K.” Crystal said immediately. “You can take care of the people and I’ll take care of the horses.”
Andrea took up the invitation, and soon found herself embarking on a steep but beautiful and joy-filled learning curve.
Together with Crystal, Andrea worked to expand an existing autism program at A&T Equestrian. They designed a new outdoor social group for kids with autism, and Andrea began offering counselling support to kids and families who are affected by autism.
Counselling at an equestrian centre
Andrea has now been at A&T Equestrian supporting kids with autism for a year. She is the centre’s first on-site therapist and counsellor. During a typical counselling session, she spends time with clients in the stable interacting with horses. Together they pet, groom, and spend time with the animals as a relaxing shared activity and a creative way of hosting a safe space for counselling conversations.
During a typical counselling session, Andrea spends time with clients in the stable interacting with horses.
Together they pet, groom, and spend time with the animals as a relaxing shared activity and a creative way of hosting a safe space for counselling conversations.
Spending time with horses can be incredibly helpful for kids with autism, Andrea explains. Being inside the barn and working side by side opens up space for young clients to explore their emotions and to talk about everyday challenges. Compared to a traditional sit-down counselling session that can feel rather intense for young clients, grooming and petting a horse can be much more calming and enjoyable.
Benefits of horse therapy
What’s more, horses can help humans to regulate their emotions. Andrea explains that horses are very attuned: they can detect a person’s heartbeat from four feet away, and they can mirror people’s emotions. Andrea has used a horse’s ability to reflect human emotions to teach her clients to become more aware of their own feelings and reactions, and to work through those emotions in positive ways.
“I hope that I will be able to bring more awareness to how horses are such a beautiful asset in working with families impacted by autism.”
Other than being outside and at the stables, Andrea and her clients spend time indoors as well. Her counselling office is built into a barn loft and has large windows overlooking an indoor riding arena. The office features soft lighting and inviting couches as well as attractive sensory toys, coloring pencils and paper, all of which help to aid conversations with kids and their families.
Outdoor social groups for kids with autism
This spring and summer, for a second year in a row, Andrea is leading outdoor social groups for kids with autism. Over the past year, she has created themed outdoor spaces on the equestrian centre’s property, including an enchanted garden. In the spacious forested area surrounding the stables, kids can hunt for little doors to fairies’ homes or look for the tree that wears a gentle smile.
Through shared activities and outdoor play, the kids grow in their ability to connect with others, follow directions and contribute within a social context.
At these social groups, kids with autism are invited to make friends with those who have similar experiences. Andrea explains that the groups are a chance for the kids to "be themselves" and to be with others who understand what it’s like to live with autism. Through shared activities and outdoor play, the kids grow in their ability to connect with others, follow directions and contribute within a social context.
Witnessing growth and resiliency
Seeing the growth in her clients is part of what makes Andrea’s work so rewarding.
“I feel so proud of the children that I have had the opportunity to work with. Seeing their growth and resiliency this past year—it truly blows me away,” she said. “I have loved seeing the self-acceptance when it comes to having an autism diagnosis, and how [they understand] it's like a superpower in being able to see the world in such a unique and powerful way.”
One day, Andrea hopes to return to Romania, the country from which she was adopted, and to establish a home there for both women and children who have experienced abuse, a place where all their needs—emotional, spiritual and practical—can be met.