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Young readers are struggling in the pandemic. Here’s how horses are helping.

Two of Caitlin Gooch’s ponies that visit students, many of them low-income, at community events. The children pick a book to read to the ponies and can then take the book home. (Caitlin Gooch)

Students across the country are floundering academically in the coronavirus pandemic. Young, low-income students are especially vulnerable, and in some places, entire classes of children are struggling to read.

A woman in North Carolina has stepped up with a way to help: horses.

Caitlin Gooch, whose family runs a horse farm near Raleigh, N.C., gathers a few of her horses and ponies about once a month and brings them to outdoor library events and book fairs in parks where she knows children will be. The children select a free book to take home, but before they leave, they can read the book to a horse.

“Horses and books — it’s the best incentive ever,” said Latishia Hodge, a mother of four who has brought her kids to read to the horses.

Hodge, who home-schools her two youngest children, Abel, 9, and Sevyn, 3, said they get especially excited to read to Man-Man, the mini horse. Man-Man, she said, listens patiently while Abel reads and does not judge as Sevyn makes up his own story to go with the pictures.

“It’s an educational adventure to get outside and read to the horses after being inside all day,” said Hodge, 38.

Gooch’s Saddle Up and Read program aims to help children improve their literacy levels and develop a love for books. Before the pandemic, hundreds of students came to Gooch’s farm in Wendell, N.C., to read everything from Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter to classics such as “Black Beauty.”

Once children started learning at home, Gooch, a self-described cowgirl, decided to take her horses to students in her area who were struggling with reading skills during the pandemic or needing a break from tedious online learning.

Gooch, 28, came up with the idea for her program in 2017 when she was working at a youth center and noticed that some of the younger kids had low literacy skills, she said.

She did some research and learned that more than half of children in North Carolina were struggling with reading proficiency in the third grade.

Her daughter’s class wasn’t teaching Black History Month. So she took matters into her own hands.

She was also concerned about statistics showing that nearly two-thirds of fourth-graders nationwide read below proficiency level, she said.

“I saw a need for a new way to get kids excited about reading,” said Gooch, who has three children, ages 1 to 10.

Gooch learned to ride at age 3 on an 87-acre horse farm run by her father, Donal Gooch. The horses have made such a difference in her life that she wanted to bring that experience to other children, especially those who might not otherwise have it.

“I have eight horses, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could share them with kids, since not every child gets a chance to interact with a horse,’ ” said Gooch. “My heart told me that if it involved horses, kids would want to pick up a book.”

She contacted the Wendell Community Library and offered to start a raffle allowing children who checked out three or more books to win a chance to come to her dad’s farm and visit the horses.

An Asian American family was being harassed. Neighbors now stand guard each night at their home.

Connie Harr, a manager for Wake County Libraries, remembers when Gooch sauntered through the door in her cowboy boots.

“She just radiated positive energy as she talked about her idea, and how important books and horses had been to her when she was growing up,” she said. “I agreed to give it a try, and it just took off. Hundreds of kids checked out books for a chance to win.”

Harr decided to call the program Saddle Up and Read, and the name stuck.

The equine-focused reading incentive was so successful that Gooch said she soon realized she needed to expand it and open it up to everyone.

“I put a post on Facebook inviting parents to bring their kids and a book and read to my horses,” she said. “After they’d each read a book, I showed them how to brush my favorite horse, Goat, and taught them about horse safety.”

As the program grew, Gooch developed other incentives such as free pony rides and free books to keep children motivated.

She felt it was especially important to reach out to children of color and encourage them to read books about Black equestrians so they could picture themselves in the stories, she said.

“If kids don’t develop good reading skills, they’re going to be limited in life,” she said. “If I can be a role model for even a few kids, it’s worth it. My goal is to get them so excited about reading that they’ll pick up books on their own when they go home.”

Since she started the program, about 500 children have come to her dad’s barn and selected a reading companion from a herd of 40 horses, said Gooch.

Now that she’s changed her routine to include short road trips with her horses, Gooch said she’ll probably continue her mobile program even when most people have been vaccinated and can return to reading at the farm.

“I do like traveling around because I’ve been able to reach kids who don’t have a way to get out to the farm,” she said. “A lot of them have parents who work all day, and they might not have time to sit down and read books together. These are the kids who need the program the most.”

She usually has treats on hand for kids to feed the horses, she said, and some children bring apples or carrots of their own to give them.

“But the real treat is listening to them read,” said Gooch. “They show confidence when they’re reading to a horse, because they’re more excited to do it.”

The horses seem to like it, too.

“They hear the child reading and think, ‘Hey, this is someone showing me some love,’ ” she said. “Horses aren’t judgmental, and they’re not picky about what book a child chooses. They really enjoy having the attention and companionship.”

Gooch said the funding for her nonprofit, which includes buying new books, comes mostly from community donations. She hopes to open an equestrian center with a small library to create even more opportunities for kids in North Carolina to develop their reading and riding skills.

That would be fine with Jazmin Perez’s daughters.

Perez’s oldest daughter used to have difficulty reading, while the youngest was terrified of large animals, especially horses, she said.

Saddle Up and Read helped Mariyah, 10, and her sister Nataliyah, 7, boost their reading levels and give them an incentive to keep checking books out of the library, said Perez, 29, a pharmacy technician and single mom from Zebulon, N.C.

“After the girls read to Caitlin’s horses, they were then allowed to ride a horse around the farm,” she said. “For my youngest who used to be scared of horses, this has done wonders for her confidence. It helped her to get over her fear. And both of my girls are now reading more books.”

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Her daughters said they have also enjoyed taking time away from staring at a computer indoors to get a hands-on experience with a horse or a pony in the fresh air at Gooch’s book fairs.

“I like feeding them, and I’m more comfortable reading to a horse than a human,” said Mariyah.

“I like to read books about animals to [the horses], and I know that they like them because they just chill and stay still and pay attention instead of making noises and going back and forth,” added Nataliyah.

Their mother has enjoyed snapping photos from the sidelines of them communicating with the horses.

“To see their sense of accomplishment and their smiles when they’re reading to the horses makes me emotional sometimes,” said Jazmin Perez. “Reading combined with horses. It’s brilliant.”

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