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One of the safest spaces for me growing up was the library.
It was a good place to hide from bullies during lunch (Yes, I was that kid lol). But my hiding space also had plenty of books to give my mind a mental escape. This is why I have a soft spot for all things bookish, including authors and people who inspire us to read more.
While penning the newsletter about a Texas racehorse named Black Lives Matters, I stumbled upon a woman who uses her love of horses to change the literacy game in her home state of North Carolina. Horses AND books!? That alone was enough to get me interested!
Don’t just leave me on read. Share this newsletter with your friends and fam so we can saddle up and start reading more together.
Pet a steed and read
It sounds like a plot straight out of a picture book: second-generation equestrian Caitlin Gooch goes on a journey to inspire more kids to read with her miniature horse “Man Man” in tow.
Luckily, this story isn’t a work of fiction. Caitlin and Man Man visit schools, churches, libraries, parks, childcare centers and other community spaces through Caitlin’s nonprofit Saddle Up and Read. As a storyteller, Caitlin opens children’s imagination by reading books featuring Black and brown protagonists (not the sidekicks we’re so used to seeing). As the nonprofit’s mascot, Man Man rolls in the grass, nibbles on carrots during Drag Queen Story Hour and enjoys pets from the kids who agree to read to him or spell a word. Kids are also welcomed to visit Caitlin’s family stable in Wendell, North Carolina, where they can read to her other horses.
Caitlin never leaves the kids empty handed. She gives away free books, mostly about Black equestrians. She carries about 60 different titles in that category alone. She said the books can give kids more confidence to be whoever they want to be, including one day owning their own farm and horses.
“The kids are seeing positive examples because their parents reiterate to them, ‘This can be something that’s possible for you,’” she said.
Caitlin grew up around horses and wanted to be a veterinarian. But after being rejected from vet school and discovering her distaste for chemistry, she took a career detour. She graduated from East Carolina University with an applied sociology degree and concentration in marriage and family therapy. While working as an educational coordinator at the Boys and Girls Club in 2017, she saw first-hand the link between the number of kids failing spelling quizzes and the state’s literacy rate.
Back then, Black fourth grade students scored 24 points lower than white students in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, also known as the national report card. That performance gap between Black and white students has only budged six points when compared to test scores from almost a decade prior. Students from low-income families scored 25 points lower than other students – a one point difference from 10 years earlier.
Part of the problem is that families can’t afford to buy books for kids to read at home. Those books with diverse characters are pricey, Caitlin said. To put it in perspective for y’all, a $1,500 grant yielded only 150 books for Saddle Up and Read – and that was with a discount from the bookstore.
“The reality is, some people, especially with the pandemic on top the gas and on top of groceries, are having to choose between buying books for their kids and buying groceries, gas or paying rent. And that just sucks so much.”
Sis couldn’t just sit back and let these problems continue. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy warns that two thirds of students who can’t read proficiently by fourth grade are in danger of being incarcerated. To put a plug in the school-to-prison pipeline, Caitlin came up with a clever way to encourage kids to read. Using Facebook, she welcomed Black, brown kids from lower income families to her dad’s farm so she could introduce them to their horses while reading to them. When she noticed she wasn’t attracting the demographic she wanted to assist due to lack of transportation, she switched course and decided to haul her horse and books to them.
To make things more inciting, she partnered with her local library to create a reading challenge: Those who checked out three or more books can come to the farm and read to the horses, which are better reading to adults, Caitlin laughs.
“It’s because the horses aren’t judgmental,” Caitlin said. “I think adults, intentionally and unintentionally, make rude comments when kids are reading. They’re super quick to correct them or tell them, ‘Oh, you pronounced that wrong.’? They don’t just slow down and just be like, ‘Oh, let’s read that again.’ Of course, horses aren’t going to do that because they can’t, but I don’t think they would judge anyway.”
Saddle Up and Read has been a big hit ever since. She’s received a shout out from Oprah on Twitter and has appeared in multiple magazines, including Vogue, and talk shows, such as the Kelly Clarkson Show. She even got a retweet from Mr. Reading Rainbow himself – LeVar Burton.
But no celebrity shoutout will overshadow the reaction she receives from the kids. A Black mother told Caitlin that her two sons talked about Caitlin for three months after visiting her farm to see and ride the horses.
“They thought I owned all the horses in North Carolina,” Caitlin said. “I remember the day they had visited me, I told them that they were equestrians. That was the message I wanted to send out because I grew up around black people who had horses. But other kids have not seen that on social media. So the mom was like, ‘Thank you for pouring that message into my sons.’”
Caitlin would like to see Saddle Up and Read extend its reach outside the state. Thanks to a partnership with WUNC North Carolina Public Radio, she is inching closer to that goal. In their podcast The Story Stables, listeners from across country can hear from Caitlin and Man Man as they talk about different aspects of farm life and invite young readers to share a book with them.
Building up her nonprofit full time, while taking care of her four daughters hasn’t been an easy feat but she wouldn’t trade it in for anything. In the future, she wants Saddle Up and Read to have 1,000 acres of its own so she can host literacy summer camps, where kids can expand their imaginations while camping out together.
“We’re opening up opportunities for Black and brown children who don’t like to read and turning them into children who love to read. We give them the tools and the resources to fall in love with reading,” she said.
Gallop on over to Saddle Up and Read’s website if you want to learn about the different ways you can support Caitlin’s nonprofit.
Not her first rodeo
You are the next generation of equestrians
“In my entire life of being a cowgirl, I’ve never once had a coloring book with, one, Black people, and Black people and horses,”
“So I made this in 2020.”
Caitlin was raised in Black equestrian culture. Here are a few moments of joy she shared with me:
Horses are a girl’s best friend: Her father plopped her on her first horse when she was three. While he may have taught her a thing or two about riding, most of Caitlin’s skills are self-taught. She spent her childhood honing her gift of connecting to horses while chilling at one of the pastures on her dad’s farm. Horses consoled her when she was being picked on in school for her thinness and hairy arms.
“I felt like I was raised by horses,” Caitlin said. “They taught me to be myself and to be proud of who I was and all my features.”
A horse named GOAT: Her first horse was a feisty grey Arabian horse with white speckles named Goat, which stood for “Go Over Any Thing” (Not “greatest of all time.” Although, to Caitlin, she was.) Goat didn’t hesitate to jump over fallen trees, splash through creeks, and took on hills and ditches with gusto. Caitlin said Goat became more patient and loving in her old age, which made her the perfect training horse for kids until her death.
Trail rides and fish frys: Caitlin’s family spent their weekends at trail rides hosted in different states by Black saddle clubs. She said hundreds of Black horse riders would gather to have some good country fun and fellowship as they camped out, meandered through trails on Black-owned land, ate their fill during fish frys and did line dances to both country and R&B music.
“Think about it like a family reunion, but with horses,” she said.
Rein in those reading skills
If you need help reining in your child’s reading skills, Caitlin has some tips for y’all with kiddos:
- Let your kids read what they want to read: “Some parents aren’t letting their kids read what they want to read. Like, if your kid just wants to read the cereal box every day, let them do it. At least they are reading something.”
- Let your kid see you reading: “I have tested this out with all my children, as soon as they start crawling, they see me reading. And they will pick up book or something and they will start reading it. All of my children have done that at a very young age. My two-year-old continues to do that. She’ll let me know she wants to read because we have books everywhere.”
- Read with your children: “Some people read to their children. But read with your children. The act of getting together and opening up a book does a lot more than just telling them to go read. Ask questions like, ‘Oh, what is the little boy wearing? How many animals do you see? What kind of animal is that?’ Parent involvement plays a huge part in in an increase in a child’s literary skills.”
Take a look. It’s in a book: spread Black Joy. See yall Friday!