Caitlin Gooch has always loved horses; she started riding when she was just three years old. When Gooch combined this passion with her deep love of reading, she found an unexpected way to affect the lives of the children in her hometown of Wendell, North Carolina. After Gooch learned that literacy rates in her state were low, she decided to use the horses that had always inspired her to change that. “Horses connect people and get kids excited,” Gooch says. “Why not use that energy to encourage kids to read?”
In 2019 only 36 percent of North Carolina’s fourth-grade students were considered proficient at reading, down from their 2017 score of 39 percent, according to the Nation’s Report Card, a project of the Department of Education that monitors literacy rates. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Child Health Report Card found that, in 2016, only about 41 percent of North Carolina families read to their children daily, down 3 percent from 2011. For many years Gooch had volunteered with local youth groups, including day care centers and organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club. But hearing about North Carolina’s literacy rates, and realizing the children she worked with struggled as well, encouraged her to go a step further.
In 2017 Gooch teamed up with a local library to give children the opportunity to interact with horses. Through the partnership, children could enter into a drawing for a chance to spend a day at her father’s farm, as long as they checked out three or more books. Once there the children would read books to the horses and feed them. The program, which Gooch named Saddle Up and Read (SUAR), caught on and has been inspiring a love of reading through connection with horses ever since.
To date Gooch has brought Saddle Up and Read to elementary schools, libraries, childcare centers, church youth groups, and community events—sometimes in full cowgirl attire—to excite children about reading. The organization’s Instagram account, @saddleupandread, captures the joy of children petting horses, book drives, and, of course, masked reading. “Most children we meet haven’t seen horses before,” Gooch has said via Instagram. “It’s always nice to associate horses with books on the first encounter. [It’s] something they will never forget.” As a child on her father’s farm, Gooch found comfort in being surrounded by animals, but especially horses. “When I was younger, I didn’t really notice how different the way I grew up was,” Gooch said in an interview with CNN in 2020. “I didn’t realize that other people didn’t live this way. I’m extremely blessed to have grown up with horses.”
But even with the incentivized program at the local library and other visits to community hubs, Gooch realized she still wasn’t reaching the segment of the population with whom she had hoped to connect. So, in summer 2020 she used her social media to encourage donations for a truck and trailer, which would allow her to visit new areas and invite children to stop by, get a free book, and pet a horse. She can now set up whenever, wherever, and visits neighborhoods all around Wendell—often partnering with local businesses like Huggy Bear’s Pet Market. In the library of books in her trailer, Gooch centers books about Black equestrians, with titles like The True West by Mifflin Lowe and Let ’Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson.
In an interview on The Kelly Clarkson Show in February, Gooch spoke about how although the horse industry is predominantly white, there is a rich history of Black equestrians, and she wants to make sure that children know about it. “It’s really important to me to show that representation,” Gooch said. “When we look at the horse industry, it’s predominantly white. So when I show up, people are like, ‘Wow, I can do this too.’”
Gooch says that books are the most expensive part of the program, and donations help keep Saddle Up and Read running. The SUAR library features donated books from the literacy organization 50 States 50 Books, as well as from book drives hosted by Bearded Bee Brewing Company and other local businesses. Saddle Up and Read also keeps an Amazon wish list of books the group would like to receive, featuring books like Change Sings by inaugural poet Amanda Gorman and Black Equestrian Coloring Book, written by Gooch herself. Gooch’s enthusiasm and energy have inspired celebrity support for Saddle Up and Read from powerhouses including Oprah Winfrey and LeVar Burton.
Though the pandemic rages on, it hasn’t stopped SUAR from reaching children in nearby communities. The portable library, along with Gooch’s passion to close the literacy gap and get children excited about reading, is to thank for the program’s ongoing success. Children still get to interact with horses and browse the library, masks up and books in hand.
“These little hands will grow into big hands,” Gooch says on an Instagram post of Black children completing a horse puzzle. “If we put books in these little hands now, just imagine what those big hands will create.”
Arriel Vinson is a Tin House YA Scholar and Hoosier who writes about being young, Black, and in search of freedom. Her writing has appeared in Kweli, Catapult, Waxwing, the Rumpus, and other publications.