The melody of miniature horse whinnies and children sounding out words in storybooks swells every week from a small family stable tucked away in the Blue Mountains of North Carolina. The children’s literacy nonprofit, Saddle Up And Read, promotes reading by rewarding children with visits to a family farm where the children are encouraged to read aloud to the horses and ponies. Local schools and public libraries can also participate in farm visits as a reward for students who check out books and read them.
While volunteering at her local Boys and Girls club, Caitlin Gooch, Founder of Saddle Up And Read, a 501(c)(3), discovered that the children she spent time with avoided their reading assignments. Caitlin loved to read as a child, and she couldn’t understand why these children couldn’t find the same joy she found within the pages of books. So, she decided to do something about it. “Eventually I just wrote down like saddles and read,” Caitlin said in an interview with Garden and Health. “I felt like it would be a great way for me to share my horses, but also use the horses as an incentive, so the kids will actually want to read.”
Caitlin worked with her local library to create a prize for children that read 3 or more books. As a reward for reading, children were provided with the opportunity to spend the day on Cailtlin’s family farm with her ponies, horses, and miniature horses. In addition to these visits, children are encouraged to practice their reading skills by reading out loud to one of the animals there, and the results have been dramatic. “It is a reward system, but I have noticed that kids focus a bit more,” said Caitlin. She detailed how one child, who usually read for only 15 minutes at a time, was able to read aloud for 30 minutes when reading to one of Caitlin’s horses. “I’ve had another parent say her daughter feels more confident about reading in class,” Caitlin went on. “Before she didn’t feel that confident, she felt embarrassed to read out loud, but now she raised her hand in class to read.”
This summer, Caitlin made the ambitious goal to provide 100 kids with 80 books each, establishing home libraries throughout the state of North Carolina through the donation of 8000 books. “If a child has a home library of 80 books, then it increases their chances of increasing their vocabulary,” Caitlin said. “If we can provide 80 books there has to be at least 20 that a child will actually enjoy.” The books are specifically chosen to demonstrate a diverse range of authors, main characters, and subjects, but Caitlin is particularly fond of books telling the rich history of Black equestrians.
Caitlin designed Saddle Up and Read in 2017 to tackle literacy at an early stage in children’s development. In the United States, nearly 66% of 4th graders read below their grade level, and this percentage particularly affects underserved communities and minorities. “It just brought me to tears,” Caitlin shared. “I just felt so bad about that because if they’re not reading now, they’re not going to read when they’re adults. We can’t do anything in this world if we can’t read.” In the four years that Saddle Up and Read has been operating, they’ve been able to get books in the hands of hundreds of kids throughout North Carolina. Caitlin has worked with teachers, librarians, and schools to spread the joys of reading.
If you would like more information on how you can support Saddle Up and Read, check out their website or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.