Saddle Up and Read
Poets & Writers Magazine|May - June 2021
A young reader finds an attentive audience during a July 2020 farm visit.
ARRIEL VINSON

Caitlin Gooch has always loved horses; she started riding when she was just three years old. When Gooch combined this passion with her deep love of reading, she found an unexpected way to affect the lives of the children in her hometown of Wendell, North Carolina. After Gooch learned that literacy rates in her state were low, she decided to use the horses that had always inspired her to change that. “Horses connect people and get kids excited,” Gooch says. “Why not use that energy to encourage kids to read?”

In 2019 only 36 percent of North Carolina’s fourth-grade students were considered proficient at reading, down from their 2017 score of 39 percent, according to the Nation’s Report Card, a project of the Department of Education that monitors literacy rates. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Child Health Report Card found that, in 2016, only about 41 percent of North Carolina families read to their children daily, down 3 percent from 2011. For many years Gooch had volunteered with local youth groups, including daycare centers and organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club. But hearing about North Carolina’s literacy rates, and realizing the children she worked with struggled as well, encouraged her to go a step further.

In 2017 Gooch teamed up with a local library to give children the opportunity to interact with horses. Through the partnership, children could enter into a drawing for a chance to spend a day at her father’s farm, as long as they checked out three or more books. Once there the children would read books to the horses and feed them. The program, which Gooch named Saddle Up and Read (SUAR), caught on and has been inspiring a love of reading through connection with horses ever since.

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