By Britney Grover
Every weekend, Caitlin Gooch travels three hours from her home in Chesapeake, Virginia, to Wendell, North Carolina. Why? To be with her horses — and to share her horses with the community. Caitlin, already a busy mom of three girls, founded Saddle Up and Read in 2017 to battle low literacy rates. It began with offering a trip to her father’s horse farm as an incentive for children to check books out from the library. Then, Caitlin began loading her Arabian, named GOAT, and her miniature horse Man Man into her trailer with as many children’s books as she could fit. She drives to different neighborhoods and schools, where children flock to the horses — and each child receives a free book. Now, Caitlin is fundraising to expand the program by building an equestrian literacy center, where youth can be both exposed to horses and encouraged to read.
How did you get involved with horses? Do you ride now?
When I was 3 years old, my dad put me on a horse for the first time. I have been riding ever since. He’s had horses since the ’70s and that love for horses has run on to me. I’m a trail rider. It’s what I started out doing, and it’s a lot of fun to ride trails in the woods. I still ride sometimes, but most of my time is spent teaching horseback riding lessons to kids and running Saddle Up and Read.
What inspired you to find a way to give back?
Having horses inspired me to give back. These creatures are so amazing, how can I not share them? I’m also the kind of person who works to fill a need when I notice it. Before Saddle Up and Read, I was working to get socks and underwear for individuals experiencing homelessness.
Who are you helping?
Through Saddle Up and Read, I’m encouraging kids to read by using my horses as an incentive. Youth in different communities are able to read to my horses, learn more about horse safety and ask me all the questions they can think of. I aim to reach all kids, but kids from low-income communities are the top priority.
When you started Saddle Up and Read, what was your goal? How is it going?
When I first started, my goal was to get kids to the farm so they could be exposed to horses and encouraged to read. I’m on track! The next step is to create groups of kids who will go through a program to prove this works. I can tell it works when moms text me saying their child hasn’t stopped talking about the horses.
What have you learned through what you’ve been doing?
I’ve learned that many adults have had bad experiences with horses when they were younger. I don’t want those experiences to happen to the children in my community.
What challenges have you faced?
As funny as this sounds, one of the challenges has been proving to schools and other facilities that I’m a real person — I guess it sounds crazy that someone would want to come by with a horse and free books to give away. The second biggest challenge is getting the kids to leave the farm without crying. Sometimes they cry because they don’t want to leave the horses. I have to promise that they’ll come back again.
What does it mean to you to be a Black equestrian role model?
I say this a lot: Representation matters. Growing up, I can’t recall having books where Black equestrians were featured, or Black or brown dolls that came with horses. Today, I get to be that representation. I get to tell other Black children they can pursue a life with horses if they want to. I hope to publish my own horse girl series, aside from the coloring books I’m already publishing, and even influence toy makers. I’ve already caught the attention of one company who plans to add more diverse toys.
What’s your advice for those who want to do good in their community?
Please see what the needs of your community are first. They’ll tell you what they need. If there are none, go to the next community or find an organization that could use some help.
What are your goals for Saddle Up and Read?
In the future, however long it takes, I don’t want Saddle Up and Read to have the same mission: I want to close the literacy gap. This isn’t something I want to go on forever, it’s something that must be resolved now.
For more information, visit saddleupandread.org