While Black cowboys and cowgirls were essential to the Western frontier, they’ve rarely been depicted in classic Western films. Caitlin Gooch, a 30-year-old North Carolina native, has committed her life to teaching Black children about this overlooked kinship, both through books and fun horse activities.
Caring for horses is something Gooch has always known. She began riding horses at 3, and today she is the keeper of her father’s 30-horse stable and farm. Generations before her, Black pioneers expertly worked with horses to entertain, compete and cultivate the land, giving way to a rich history of Black cowboys and cowgirls in the U.S. that has gone fairly ignored until recently. In 1875, for instance, the first Kentucky Derby was won by a Black jockey, Oliver Lewis; in fact, 15 of the first 20 derbies were won by Black jockeys, according to the Library of Congress.
The 2021 movie “The Harder They Fall,” starring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba and Regina King, depicts cowboy Nat Love (Majors) and Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), the latter a groundbreaking Black rodeo performer in the early 1900s. Pickett is known for originating the “bulldogging” technique of grabbing cattle by the horns and making it fall on its side, a technique that is still used today, according to the National Cowboy Museum. That same year, the movie “Concrete Cowboy” — also starring Elba — came out, depicting a modern-day nonprofit that brings together Black Philadelphians with horses, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club.
Gooch said it has been difficult finding information on Black women equestrians, herders and jockeys. Still, some of the trailblazers she has identified include Sylvia Bishop, the first Black woman licensed to officially train thoroughbreds in 1954, and Cheryl White, the first Black woman licensed to jockey in the nation in the early 1970s, according to the International Horse Museum.
Gooch utilizes her social media pages to highlight these notable figures and also to portray her everyday farming life. Seven years ago, she created a social media presence as “The Black Cowgirl,” looking to educate people about Black Americans’ contributions to horse culture. Today, she has more than 40,000 followers across all her social media accounts.
“We’ve always been involved in the horse industry, and we can be here and we deserve to be here,” Gooch said.
Gooch works to spread her passion for horses and books through her Saddle Up and Read initiative, which was established as a nonprofit organization in 2019. After noticing the low literacy rates in North Carolina and a literacy gap affecting communities of color, Gooch partnered with local libraries to incentivize children to read by rewarding them with a day in her father’s farm if they checked out three or more books.
Only 32% of fourth-graders in North Carolina read at a proficient or higher level in 2022, according to the Nation’s Report Card.
As of September 2022, Gooch had raised about $40,000 for Saddle Up and Read. The organization has grown and its activities now include visiting elementary schools, libraries and other community centers. It also has created a library of books that feature diverse stories.
A few years back, Gooch released a coloring book to educate children on Black equestrian history and plans to write more children’s books on Black horse culture.
“I think it’s important for people, not just Black people, not just people of color, but even white people to realize that Black people have always been a part of this, Gooch said. “We’re learning about everything else. We should learn about Black horse-folk, too.”
Watch Gooch’s story on “Hidden Histories,” a new special from NBC News Digital Docs, that highlights three overlooked — or forgotten — stories from America’s past, and its present.