Caitlin Gooch was alarmed to learn how low the literacy rate for African American children in her home state was and decided to do something about it.

April 30, 2021
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The numbers were enough to make Caitlin Gooch cry, and cry she did until nearly 1 in the morning. 

What brought Gooch, who grew up in North Carolina, to tears that night in 2017 was a report that showed the low literacy rate for low-income African American children had not changed in years. 

Caitlin Gooch and Horse
Credit: Caitlin Gooch

"How could this be?''  Gooch wondered, as she grew worried about the future. 

Some time later, Gooch's sorrow was replaced with joy as she brainstormed on how to get children more excited about reading. In 2019, one idea that resonated with students was Gooch pairing the distribution of books, which featured minority characters, with horses Gooch brought out to children in various communities.  

Caitlin Gooch and horse and young reader
Credit: Caitlin Gooch

She called her effort Saddle Up and Read, a non-profit organization that uses horses from Gooch's father's farm in Wendell, North Carolina, in her outreach to young readers. 

Saddle Up and Read horses and books
Credit: Caitlin Gooch

Having grown up with horses and around African American equestrians all her life, using horses to encourage reading seemed like a natural fit. She's created Color and Learn Black Equestrian Coloring Book and is even known as the "Black Cowgirl" to students.

"I say 'Black Cowgirl,' because try getting a 2-year-old to say, 'equestrian.' It's something they recognize' '' she said, adding that Saddle Up and Read is for all races and the books she hands out cover a variety of topics. 

Saddle Up and Read is handled by Gooch, a 28-year-old married mother of three daughters, ages 10, 5 and 1 years old. She lives in Chesapeake, Virginia. but makes the six-hour round trip to Wendell to pick up a horse and take it to students. Today, she is juggling growing national interest in her organization, an overflowing email inbox, donations and new goals for Saddle Up and Read, all while still taking time for family.

"I have somebody looking for interns,'' she said.

With cold temperatures and COVID-19 at the start of the year, she's delayed her horse visits and book deliveries for warmer temperatures. Her plan for summer 2021 is to give 100 families in North Carolina, 80 books to stock in-home libraries.

"I read that a child who has an in-home library with these 80 books, they have a better chance of having a higher vocabulary and better learning '' abilities, she said. 

Her overall goal for Saddle Up and Read is for it not to be needed in the future. 

"I don't want to die knowing that Saddle Up and Read is still having to get kids excited to read or develop avid readers,'' she said. "I would love to see, one day, that the literacy rates have increased 50 percent because of Saddle Up and Read.''

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For more information about Saddle Up and Read, please visit www.saddleupandread.org.

We just love this investment Gooch has made in her community. Way to go, Caitlin!