Equestrian Diversity Project September 2020 Highlight: Saddle Up and Read

State Line Tack® is proud to bring you the inside scoop on riding programs that are working hard to bring access to horses to kids in urban areas. This month's spotlight is on on Saddle Up and Read.

What is Saddle Up and Read?

Founded in 2017, Saddle Up and Read, or SUAR, was developed with the hopes of improving literacy rates in the Wendell, NC area. Two-thirds of kids in America who aren't reading proficiently by fourth grade will end up on welfare or in jail. This disproportionately affects children of color. SUAR is committed to encouraging youths to read by creating a library of books featuring black equestrians, and by connecting reading and horses in a responsibility/reward structure.

The Face of SUAR - Founder Caitlin Gooch:

Caitlin Gooch grew up on her family's horse farm in Wendell, NC and started riding at the age of 3. She currently resides in Chesapeake, VA with her Navy husband and three daughters, and makes the commute to the farm every weekend to do the on-farm part of SUAR.

We had the opportunity to sit down with her and chat about SUAR, the program attendees, and the power of the horse. Read on to learn about SUAR's goals, what drives Caitlin and the program, and what SUAR needs to further their literacy work.

Q: What inspired you to create SUAR?

A: I have a background in childcare and volunteered with the Boys & Girls Club and the Salvation Army, as well as a therapeutic riding center. I consistently saw that our local children had issues with pronunciation of multi-syllable words, as well as with spelling. Upon further research, I discovered that our local school literacy rates are well below average and are lowest among minorities. All the kids loved to see photos of and hear stories about my horses, once they learned I had them. To me, a path was clear - combine horses and reading - by using the horses as an incentive to read.

Q: How does the program work?

A: It started out as a cooperative with Wendell Library. Kids who checked out 3 or more books were entered into a drawing. At the end of the month, librarians randomly chose 5 names, those kids received a horse pillow and an invitation to come to my farm, where they met the horses, groomed them, read to them and sometimes had a chance to ride.

Now we also get scheduled with schools, churches, after-school programs, Girl Scout troops and more to read to the class. We even do a Black History Month Reading Tour!

The program isn't just for independent readers, either. Kids that are too young or are struggling can qualify with working on sight words, or paired reading exercises. We want to inspire all kids to read, young and old, black and white, and everything in between!

Q: Is there a particular moment or memory that stands out for you?

A: The look on a child's face when they get up close and personal with a horse. It gets me every time. You invite them up, and you can see the emotions - shock, excitement, nervousness - flit across their features. I live for that face! Teaching them to interact, soothe, and handle this enormous creature, seeing the empowerment they receive by doing so. I get to tell them that I have faith in them to do that. And that empowerment and faith makes the reading almost easy by comparison. You just see these kids light right up, and most of them don't want to leave the farm.

And it really registers with the kids that it's not simply a horse program, it's also a reading program. We had a child come to the farm and work with one of our volunteers - he met the horse, and brushed it, and fed it. The volunteer got busy and forgot about the "read to the horse" part. And the boy piped up and said, "Hey miss, I brought my Pokemon book to read to the horse, do you think he'll like it?" That's our purpose, our mission and our passion, right there.

Q: What is the biggest challenge SUAR is currently facing?

A: For a while, it was transportation. We didn't have a truck and trailer to bring the horses to the kids, and most kids' parents work and weren't available to bring them to the farm. We were very fortunate to receive a donated truck and trailer that we can use to bring those horses to the kids.

Now, it's COVID-19 - like it is for everyone else! We want to continue the program, but struggle to keep the kids and volunteers safe. It's imperative that the kids that struggle to read get the help they need. We could do virtual lessons, but with so many schools going virtual, screen time is already increased exponentially, and it's hard to make that connection with reading through a computer.

Next up is our own facility - currently we are operating out of my family's farm, but it isn't an exclusively equestrian property. My dad's business is based out of there, and they also hold some events - so it can be difficult to book time for the kids. Our program needs its own home!

Q: What do you need, or how do you plan on tackling your challenges?

A: We are always fundraising, because books are EXPENSIVE, and now we are applying for grants. We have a wonderful volunteer, Germaine in Detroit, that is spearheading the grant effort. It's labor intensive and time consuming! Otherwise, we are working on sourcing a local barn that we could partner our program with, either as a temporary stopgap or, for the right fit, a long-term solution.

Q: What do you want people to know?

A: That kids who see adults read become readers. Read to your kids! If you don't have kids, read to your nieces, nephews, grandkids, friends' kids. Reading is so important!

Be sure to stay tuned to Facebook, Instagram and saddleupandread.org for updates on SUAR and the next steps on their way to serving Wendell, North Carolina's youth.

  • Published:
  • Updated: 10/5/2020: 4:30:10 PM ET
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