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 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 nonprofit program Saddle Up and Read was born.
Gooch started with a Black History Month Reading Tour, visiting different schools and youth groups to talk about horse safety and Black equestrians in history. She has visited 200 classrooms so far.
She started a Young Black Equestrians podcast with Abriana Johnson, and after the killing of George Floyd while in police custody this past spring, horse groups from across the country sought out Gooch and Johnson in an effort to encourage more representation for Black equestrian voices.
A donated truck and trailer
That exposure also meant more publicity for the Saddle Up and Read book program, and she started to get more donations.
Two big ones: a truck donation from Caves Farm in Maryland, then Double H Farms in Florida donated the money to buy a trailer in Kentucky.
Now, while trying to keep foot traffic down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gooch can load the trailer with donated books and stuffed animals — and a real live horse or two — and head out to neighborhoods, parks or parking lots so that kids can get a book and and pet a horse.
Gooch does all of this while living in Chesapeake, Virginia, where her husband is stationed in the Navy. She commutes to Wendell on the weekends. In fact, there's no better example of her level of dedication to the program than the fact that earlier this year she was making that Chesapeake-to-Wendell-and-back trip every single weekend right up until the time she delivered her third daughter in March.
"I have a picture where I am pregnant and reading to kids in a library," she said.
A couple of months after her baby girl was born, Gooch was back on the road, making sure kids back home were learning about horses and Black equestrians while improving their reading skills.
Representation in books
Gooch's work is about more than raising literacy rates, though that is core. She also wants Black children to recognize themselves in the books they read.
She just released the first in a series of four coloring books aimed at promoting Black equestrians. The first one is called The Black Equestrian Coloring Book, Volume 1: The Trailblazers.
The coloring books are for sale, and many people buy copies that they donate back to Saddle Up and Read, along with crayons and markers, so that she can give them out to kids at events.
Gooch knows how important it is that Black children feel represented.
"I can't tell you if I ever had a book as a child that had someone who looked like me in the book," Gooch said. "I'm pretty sure I never had one. Especially that had horses in it as well.
"The coloring book means a lot to me."
'The world kinda stopped for a bit'
Gooch is very active on social media, spreading the word about Saddle Up and Read and Black equestrians across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
On Dec. 5, after Saddle Up and Read's first book drive, she tweeted a selfie with her newly donated truck and trailer in the background and wrote this:
"Hi, I'm Gooch. See that truck and trailer? I drive it to different communities to give books to children in need. Oh and I bring my horse with me. RT so I can get the word out. I'm in N.C."
The post has been retweeted nearly 33,000 times, including a few retweets by a number of accounts with more than a million followers.
That gave Saddle Up and Read a big boost. But the biggest of all possible boosts came on Dec. 10, Gooch's birthday, in the form of a retweet with a message from Oprah Winfrey:
"I'll retweet to help get the word out ... and donate to your non-profit, Saddle Up and Read. I think what you're doing is great: Getting kids to fall in love with reading (and horses). Will call with details. Happy birthday, Goooooooch!"
(And yes, she does go by "Gooch" and says that's what her friends call her.)
In that moment — you know, that moment when Oprah tweets at you and knows your name — Gooch had trouble even comprehending what had happened.
"I said (on Twitter) that I passed out, but the world kinda stopped for a bit," she said. "Because when I was reading it I couldn't believe it, but also it took me seven times to figure out what she said. I didn't know she said she was going to make a donation. I didn't realize she said my name. Basically, the ability to read just went!"
The next day, more love from her heroes.
Actor LeVar Burton, one of her Saddle Up and Read inspirations, responded to a tweet in which she told him that she loves him and that, "when I think about Saddle Up and Read, I think of Reading Rainbow but with horses."
Burton responded, "I love you too and am supremely proud of you!"
Gooch shared the tweet, adding, "There are tears in my dimples."
Gooch hasn't gotten the "call" from Oprah yet, but she has gotten an email from her foundation. And she's grateful for Oprah's public (and private) support, and for the media attention and the support and donations from everyone else.
She has been doing all of this by herself for the past three years, only asking for donations of books or supplies, but now she has bigger dreams.
She's trying to raise money for a more permanent infrastructure, and she's trying to build a board, so that she'll have some help. She wants to make sure she connects with people who are genuine, and not just hyped up over Oprah.
More than anything, she's excited about the nonprofit's future, and ready to expand the program in North Carolina and beyond — and ready to stop that weekly commute from Virginia.
"I want there to be a Saddle Up facility," she said. "I want there to be a home for Saddle Up and Read. I want to live in North Carolina again! I want to wake up and do this every day and make these services available for free.
"We are going to raise literacy rates," Gooch continued. "I am going to prove that this works."