By Sandy Cyr
Around midnight one evening several years ago, Caitlin Gooch decided to look up the literacy rates in her area. She landed on a website that listed reading and math scores by demographics for every single school in her state. At each school she clicked on, she found that the scores for black students, regardless of whether they made up the majority or minority of a particular school’s population, were always the lowest scores.
“I thought this was really sad because I can’t think of a job where you don’t have to know how to read, especially if you don’t want to live in poverty all your life.” It was hard for Caitlin to see a future for children who didn’t want to read.
It is no secret that racial disparities exist in correctional institutions throughout the United States.
Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at nearly five times the rate of whites. Add to that, two thirds of youth in juvenile detention centers are black. Data suggest a strong link between literacy rates and crime, including the often cited US Department of Justice report, Reduced Recidivism and Increased Employment Opportunity Through Research-Based Reading Instruction (1993), that proposed that, “research-based reading instruction can be used to reduce recidivism and increase employment opportunity for incarcerated juvenile offenders.”
The further down the rabbit hole of research Caitlin went, the more she started to think about the literacy rates in her own community. “I started to wonder, out of all those kids, how many are reading at grade level? How do education systems pass along students who are not reading at grade level? We have to do something to reel them back in.”
Caitlin Gooch grew up on a horse farm in the small hamlet of Eagle Rock, North Carolina, just minutes from the state capital. She started riding horses at just three years old. Representation of African-American involvement in the equestrian community is rare, but for Gooch, and those who belong to the 50 some odd saddle clubs of predominantly black cowboys and cowgirls throughout the southeastern United States, it is everyday life. She grew up trail riding almost every weekend from March to November with saddle clubs throughout North Carolina.
While studying sociology at East Carolina University, she started to learn about society and how systems were set in place to help or hinder communities. In college, she began volunteering at a Boys and Girls Club, helping kids with their homework. She continued working with children at a daycare and her local Boys and Girls Club upon returning home following graduation.
The young children she was working with were interested in horses, and would always ask Cailtin to show them pictures or videos of her horses on her phone. As an education coordinator at the Boys and Girls Club, she started to see that some children were struggling to pass sight word spelling tests – they didn’t want to study, they weren’t interested in reading, and so they were failing. Gooch came up with an idea. She coordinated with a local librarian for a raffle where if children checked out three or more books, their names would be entered into a chance to go to Gooch’s barn and meet the horses. This program kicked off what would evolve into Gooch’s nonprofit, Saddle Up And Read (SUAR).
“I really want kids to be interested in reading,” says Gooch. “When I started doing it, it was just like my way of getting back. I wanted to do something with my horses to get kids to read.” She began inviting parents to bring their children to the barn to read to the horses. Quickly, she discovered that access was a challenge – the children who were showing up at the barn were not necessarily the ones who needed encouragement to read. So she started bringing the horses to the kids who needed her the most. Today, SUAR still brings children and school groups to the farm, as well as taking the horses to elementary schools, libraries, child care centers, church youth groups, and community events.
The therapeutic qualities of horses has been well documented and researched, especially in working with people living with mental, physical, or emotional challenges. But never before has the excitement children feel when being involved with horses been channeled into improving literacy rates. Gooch has taken these two seemingly disparate passions of hers and melded them together in a way that is helping to get young people excited about reading.
The work of SUAR has expanded to include a horsemanship academy that helps to not only develop better informed equestrians, but also serves to build awareness in young people of the career opportunities within the multi-billion dollar horse industry. Additionally, not only have they identified the very limited collection of black equestrian representation in children’s literature, they are actively working to expand the literary offerings so that young people can see themselves in and connect more deeply with what they read.
Anecdotally, Gooch knows that she is having a positive impact on young people. She has heard from parents and caregivers that the children who engage in Saddle Up And Read are more excited about reading. This year, she will be working with researchers to determine just how far she is moving the needle on literacy rates, and examine the longer term impacts of her work. But until then, she will continue to share the joy of reading with everyone she can. “I would really hate for kids, especially in my community, but kids in general, to grow up and not have that passion for reading or not even understanding how to read.”