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The Daily Tar Heel

Caitlin Gooch isn't holding her horses in stopping childhood illiteracy

Twice a month, Caitlin Gooch drives her trailer around North Carolina, carrying with her a couple of horses and a load of books. This time, she's parked outside a Walmart. On other occasions, she heads to public parks or follows the recommendation of a Facebook follower. Regardless, she's there for one reason — to share literature and horses with the community. 

Based in Wendell, North Carolina, Gooch has recently gained media attention for the work of her nonprofit, Saddle Up and Read, which uses horses to encourage childhood reading, build confidence and increase diverse representation within children’s literature.

Gooch founded Saddle Up and Read in 2017 when she was working as an assistant teacher for a daycare and noticed many of her students were uninterested in reading. 

She also realized the same children were mesmerized by the stories and photos of her life with horses. This inspired her to partner with a local library to create a raffle for a day with the horses for children who checked out three books. 

“For the children who had never been around horses, I was like, I can use my horses, and I really want to share my horses with other children so they can be exposed to them like I was, so let’s use reading as an incentive,” she said.

The raffle’s success inspired Gooch to create Saddle Up and Read. The nonprofit continues to offer incentive programs where children can win trips to her family farm in Wendell farm for reading and meeting horses. The organization has also curated a library centered around Black equestrians. 

Outside of Saddle Up and Read, Gooch continues to drive across the state with her horses, sharing books to spread her message and empower even more children. 

Savannah Truesdale, a co-worker of Gooch at the children’s daycare, said Gooch’s positivity and passion for her horses captivated her students' attention and made the lesson come to life. 

Additionally, she said the majority of her students were minorities and that it was impactful for Gooch to tell the story of Black equestrians. She said cowboys and cowgirls are often associated with white people, but Gooch aims to dispel that narrative by showing the students that cowboys — and equestrians in general — can be, have been and are people of color. 

“If you want to be a cowgirl or cowboy, you can do that, and there are people who look just like you,” Truesdale said.

Heather Aiken, an education research scientist at UNC, said increasing representation within childhood literature is vital to increasing both childhood literacy and the amount of authors of color who publish books. She said in 2017, 37 percent of the U.S. population were people of color yet in the last 24 years only 13 percent of children’s books contained multicultural content. She said representation is increasing, but is not yet where it needs to be. 

“When they see themselves in books, they can then see themselves as authors of books because they realize their stories are important as well,” she said.

Additionally, childhood literacy has immense implications for the development of children. Saddle Up and Read's website states that two-thirds of children who aren’t reading proficiently by fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. 

Gooch said Saddle Up and Read provides even more than literacy skills. Throughout her life, exposure to horses increased her confidence and resilience. She said Saddle Up and Read teaches children determination while also providing them a space to think and wonder. 

“Not all children get that time to say the things and the ideas and the opinions that they have," she said. "With Saddle Up and Read I want to give children a safe base to think positively and think creatively and be themselves.”

However, Gooch says her favorite part of Saddle Up and Read has always been the joy the children get from the horses. 

“For me, it’s seeing children smile, seeing those kids be their authentic selves and seeing parents join in and engage with the activity their child is doing."

@DTHCityState | 

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