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Black cowgirl uses horses to help close literacy gap between Black, white kids

In the "Saddle Up and Read" program, kids find reading encouragement on a farm.
/ Source: TODAY

For years, Caitlin Gooch volunteered to help children with literacy around Wendell, North Carolina. She noticed many children struggled to read or couldn’t figure out their weekly spelling words. When she dug into the literacy rates in the United States, she knew she needed to do more.

“When I found that Black children, in general, were far behind their white peers, I just thought that wasn’t OK,” the 28-year-old founder of Saddle Up and Read told TODAY Parents. “There should be something that we can do that helps close the literacy gap. Because if our kids aren't reading, then we don't have a future.”

Caitlin Gooch loves reading and horses. Combing the two seemed like a natural fit for her nonprofit Saddle Up and Read. Courtesy Caitlin Gooch

But her experience as a volunteer prepared her to act. Gooch has been riding horses her whole life — her father started riding in the 1970s — and she now teaches riding. And, she noticed that children were more engaged in reading and spelling after they learned that she had horses and they realized they could see pictures and videos of them.

“I would try to use the horse pictures as incentive, like ‘After we read this book, you can look,’” she said. “Even some of the kids wanted to come out to the farm and actually see a horse so I would talk to their parents and we would set something up.”

It turns out that children are much more interested in reading if there is a pony or horse involved in the mix. Courtesy Caitlin Gooch

That’s when she the idea struck her: What if the kids could read to the horses?

With the support of her husband Jaquan Salaam, Gooch started Saddle Up and Read, which has had more than 500 children read with Gooch’s horses either at the farm, libraries or schools over the past three years. When it comes to visiting the farm, she never had a set schedule. She found the children who needed literacy help most often had the hardest time finding transportation. But whenever they can get there, Gooch allowed them to read to the horses. Children just love horses.

“The kids start screaming and jumping around,” she said. “When kids get really excited, they do this thing where they like squeeze their shoulders together and they shiver a little bit.”

When children read to the horses they feel so engaged in the story. They ask more questions and sometimes make up their own stories. Courtesy Caitlin Gooch

The low pressure, fun reading environment really helps put the children at ease and engages them in reading.

“It’s non-judgmental. Sometimes they will ask like, ‘Hey I don’t know how to pronounce this word,’ or ‘Can you read with me,’” Gooch explained. “Then sometimes kids they’re just making up a story and it’s totally OK. They’re still holding the book.”

The families enjoy it, too, and Gooch sees how the experience can encourage more reading time at home.

“The parents are getting really involved, and it helps,” Children learn to ask more questions … Parents will ask the children like, ‘What do you think the horse thinks about this?’ or ‘What do you think about that?’ It helps with reading comprehension.”

Reading to horses gives children a judgement free place to practice their skills. Courtesy Caitlin Gooch

While she loves encouraging children to read, she also wants to show Black children that they can be equestrians. She and a friend have a podcast “Young Black Equestrians” and through interviewing Black riders across the world, Gooch has learned that some Black equestrians haven’t even ridden with another Black person.

“People don’t even think about other equestrians who are Black,” she said. “They don’t think about it because they just don’t see it. They don’t see it in media. They don’t see it in books. They don’t see it in real life.”

Caitlin Gooch also hopes that her program shows children that Black people can be equestrians, too. Her middle daughter already talks about being a horse trainer when she grows up. Courtesy Caitlin Gooch

That’s why Gooch is working on a series of 12 coloring books, Black Equestrians Color and Learn, with each one telling the story of a different Black equestrian.

“You don’t learn anything about Black cowboys,” she said. “I want them to learn more about their stories because some of these equestrians, they were once slaves. For someone to actually document their history and then turn it into a book — that is really inspiring.”