Caitlin Gooch has spent her entire life surrounded by horses and lots and lots of kids — siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and now her own daughters.
But three years ago, the 28-year-old Wendell, North Carolina, native got serious about combining the two for a worthy cause: helping raise literacy rates by getting more kids interested in reading.
After graduating from East Carolina University, Gooch, whose father has a horse farm and arena in Wendell, had been volunteering with young kids in an after-school program. They loved looking at all of the horse photos on her phone, she said.
But many of these same kids, she discovered, couldn't read or spell the three- and four-letter words on their spelling tests correctly. She told the kids if they got all of their spelling words correct, they could visit her father's farm and meet the horses.
It was a big incentive, and it worked.
Shortly after that, Gooch went down a rabbit hole of stats, studying literacy rates at Wendell elementary schools, and was alarmed by what she saw.
"I cried because it showed that Black children were so far behind everyone else," Gooch said. "And it's not just Wendell, it's like that across North Carolina and across the United States. That did not sit right with me."
Despite a statewide Read to Achieve program, started in 2012, reading scores and the percentage of North Carolina students displaying at least basic reading skills have continued to decline. According to a 2019 report, the percentage of North Carolina fourth-grade students showing at least basic skills, or partial mastery of grade-level reading, dropped from 69% in 2017 to 67% in 2019. It was at 68% in 2011, The News & Observer previously reported.
Gooch partnered with the Wendell Community Public Library, which created a program that offered kids who checked out three or more books during the month a chance to win a horse-shaped pillow and a visit to Gooch's farm. From the 180 entries that month, five little cowboys and cowgirls won horse pillows and visited the farm, where they could ride, brush, groom and read a book to a horse.
That's when the non-profit program Saddle Up and Read was born.