When Caitlin Gooch was working with elementary school kids as a teacher’s assistant, it was sobering to find that most children were not reading at grade level. 

In her native North Carolina, 36 percent of fourth graders are reading at a proficient level, and it’s about the same nationwide, according to The Nation’s Report Card, a congressionally mandated assessment of students nationwide. Adjusting for race, Black fourth graders across the country tied for the lowest average reading score. In North Carolina, White and Asian fourth graders scored more than 20 points above Black, Latinx and Indigenous children on average. 

Then, in 2017, Gooch was volunteering at a Scholastic Book Fair with a Western theme and realized not all kids at the fair had enough money to bring books home. 

“I know that authors and illustrators have to make money, but it also pains me really bad that books are so expensive,” Gooch said. “Children deserve new books.”

A lightbulb went off for the 28-year-old, who grew up surrounded by horses on her family farm. Gooch established Saddle Up and Read that year with the mission to get more books to kids, using her childhood horse, Goat, as the magnet to draw kids into her book drives. 

Gooch fundraised enough money to put down a third of the cost of a trailer to take Goat on the road. A farm in Kentucky sent in money to help offset the cost. Farmers in Maryland donated a truck with 40,000 miles on it.  

“I was really happy, because it seemed like at that point people were starting to not only pay attention to Saddle Up and Read, but pay attention to literacy rates, and that’s something that I don’t want people to forget,” Gooch said.  

She now travels to towns and neighborhoods in North Carolina, handing out gift bags with books. Gooch has given out at least 200 books this year.

During the pandemic, she hasn’t hosted readings on her farm out of an abundance of caution, so she and Goat are on the road more often. These gifts allowed Gooch and Goat to show up in North Carolina neighborhoods with books and goodie bags. 

Over the first weekend in December, she posted a selfie in front of her horse trailer, captioned with a simple request: “See that truck and trailer?” the tweet read. “I drive it to different communities to give books to children in need. Oh and I bring my horse with me. [Retweet] so I can get the word out. I’m in N.C.” 

After posting the tweet, Gooch, a mother of three, went to record a podcast interview in her car (it would’ve been impossible inside her noisy house). When she was finished, she looked at her phone and saw a message: “Oprah tweeted you, sis.” 

Oprah Winfrey had not only shared Gooch’s post with her 43 million followers — she had pledged to donate to the nonprofit. LeVar Burton, host of “Reading Rainbow,” also told Gooch he was proud of her via Twitter. 

In conversation with The 19th, Gooch talked about bringing together her love of reading with all things equestrian, and her efforts to inspire the next generation of book-lovers. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 19th: Tell me a little more about Saddle Up and Read. Why did you launch it?

Caitlin Gooch: I started it because I saw that children, Black children, were struggling when it came to literacy, when it came to reading, in general, and even putting together sentences. 

In the roles I’ve volunteered in, and my role as an assistant teacher, I get to help kids with their spelling words and their vocabulary. And when they’re struggling to spell three-letter words and four-letter words, I feel like that’s a red flag — especially with some of the children who were in fourth grade and fifth grade. 

I took the time to research it and figure out what the literacy rates actually were. I went into a rabbit hole and I found that children of color were far behind their White peers. I looked up reading and writing performance [charts] in every school in my area. When it came to the Black students, the bar was so small and you could barely even see it on the graph. What is really happening? I wanted to get to that part. For me, when I see a need for something, I’m going to work until I can fill it. 

I thought, this can’t just be an issue in my area, and it wasn’t. It’s North Carolina and then it’s America, in general. We’re so far behind other countries. What’s the difference here? Why aren’t children reading? What I found is that many children don’t have books at home or they don’t have books with characters who look like them or ones that interest them. Maybe that’s a part of the problem. [Ed note: The 2019 Cooperative Children’s Book Center survey on diversity in young adult and children’s literature found about 12 percent of such books featured a Black main character, nearly 30 percent of books feature animals.]

One: We don’t have a lot of books with representation. Two: The number of those book titles is smaller when it comes to figuring out what children like to read. Of course they’re not all going to be into the same things; they have their own personalities and interests. So with Saddle Up and Read, I said, let’s use horses to get kids excited about reading. Because if they’re excited about reading and they don’t see it as a chore, then just maybe it’ll make it easier for us to nurture that love of reading, and we can use horses to do it. I have yet to meet anybody who doesn’t like horses. I’m pretty sure those people might be out there, but I haven’t met them. 

What’s your relationship with horses? 

I grew up riding horses. My dad has a horse farm in Wendell, North Carolina. We moved five different times into different houses, but the farm has always been at the same place. When I was a kid, I’d wake up, I’d see horses. I mean, we literally use the horses as our mowing system. When I was 3, [my dad] started me out riding, and we’d do trail rides together. At trail rides I ride Western but also ride bareback. So that is where my love for horses started.

What was your relationship with reading growing up?  

I love books. I can’t even tell you what books I used to read, but I love reading. I was really into the “Twilight” series. I think I finished that series in a day or something. Books have always kept me centered and at peace. They’ve just allowed me to imagine even more. So I put books and horses together. 

Can you say more about uniting those interests?  

When I used to work in a child care center, I was the teacher’s assistant, and I was kind of a floater. I worked with 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. And those children, I love them so much, they were so stinkin’ adorable. I used to show them my horse on my phone to really grasp their attention. But sometimes we would be doing something, or it was like free play or something, and they’d say, “Ms. G, can I see your phone so I can see your horses?” This one boy, he was 3 years old, he used to cry if I didn’t let him see my phone and watch the videos. 

I would try to talk to their parents and say, “You should just bring them out to the farm.” I felt like I was incredibly blessed to have grown up with horses. How many people does that happen to? I felt like that happened to me for a reason, and I shouldn’t just be selfish and keep my horses to myself — I have to share them. Sometimes I would just wake up and it was so pretty outside, and I’d make a Facebook post that would say, “It’s so pretty outside, bring your kids to the farm.” Kids deserve to have that exposure. 

When you decide to hit the road with your horse, Goat, and your trailer of books, how do you inform people where you will be? 

A few weeks ago was one of the first times that I actually went into a neighborhood. With a pandemic I’m trying to make sure that I’m being extremely safe. I went to my aunt’s neighborhood because she’s very supportive of everything I do with Saddle Up and Read. I drove the horse trailer, and I’m not that good at backing up. I had to pull forward and back up, and pull forward and back up, because I was in the middle of the road in this neighborhood. I parked the truck and already people were looking out the window like, “What in the world?” 

My husband was with me. We got the books out of the trailer, and got the books set up — that way when the kids came, they could just grab their book and their bag and they could leave. Then I got my horse out. I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna walk down the street and walk back.”

As I started walking back, there was a group of kids, maybe five, at the horse trailer. They started asking me all these questions about my horse, Goat. They were asking me why I was out there, and I said, “It’s really important that you read.” My husband and I gave them their goodie bags that were donated. Some of them got like three or so books. The bags had hats in them, so the kids put on their hats and went down the street to their friend’s houses and neighbors to tell them to come outside. 

I know we all wish the pandemic was over. I’m wondering how you feel handing out books now as so many kids struggle with virtual or hybrid learning, or may be among the thousands of kids nationwide who’ve just disappeared from the roster. 

I think this is the perfect opportunity to understand something else: Libraries are absolutely fantastic, programs like mine are absolutely fantastic, but there’s an entire population of kids who are missing out because they don’t have transportation. Where I live, there’s no bus route. The kids who can get out [to the library or to the farm] have that luxury of parents who can bring them in a car. 

Those kids who are missing out on school right now because they’re not enrolled virtually and they’re not in physical school, I wonder if it’s just linked to a lack of resources. This is another reason why I don’t advertise [on social media] where I’m going, because sometimes people who don’t necessarily need Saddle Up and Read will show up. I really want to get to the kids that need us first. I’m not going to deny any child, I just would rather make sure I go out to those kids who need it first; that’s what I’m doing it for. I hope I can identify where those kids are who aren’t enrolled in anything and maybe go out and spend some time. Even if I have to say stay 6 to 12 feet away, I’ll read a book to you. 

I have reading videos up, and other people have read to their horses on behalf of Saddle Up and Read. But there are kids who don’t have a computer. I really have to figure out how to tap into that. Because kids being out of school is going to have a negative impact on the literacy rates. Who knows how far back this is going to push everything. 

What else do you want our readers to know? 

Reading to kids 20 minutes a day really helps.  Even if you don’t have children, maybe there’s some children [you] can read to. Or maybe they just want to donate to Saddle Up and Read. Or, if they don’t like children and they like horses, they can sponsor one of our horses.