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Equestrian and her horse earn opportunity at USC

Cary High School does not have an equestrian program. Neither does any other public school in North Carolina.

But that didn't stop Cary senior Sally Henry from earning an equestrian scholarship to the University of South Carolina, one of only 18 NCAA Division I schools with a program for the sport.

As a result of Title IX requirements that aim to give females more opportunities in athletics, some schools have turned to horseback riding to give equestrians like Henry a chance.

"Back when I rode, there were no opportunities like they are now," said Juli Cates, Henry's mother. "The programs that are around are growing and developing more and more. It's a good thing for girls who ride, because when you're dedicated at the level that my daughter is, it takes a whole lot of time and energy."

Cates isn't just talking about the actual horseback riding. Unlike sports such as football and basketball, equestrian prospects usually have to market themselves instead of relying on recruiters.

For Henry and her mother, that meant putting together a detailed recruiting profile, resume and video clips of Henry riding to send to all 18 Division I programs.

"I have over 400 videos that I've taken over three years (of Henry riding)," Cates said. "As new videos came up that highlighted Sally's talent for riding different horses, we'd post them on YouTube and send a link to the video to the coaches who showed interest."

But like other sports, Henry spends countless hours practicing her craft.

"If I'm not at home, sleeping or doing homework, I'd say I'm riding," Henry said. "Right after school I go straight to the barn and ride as many horses as I can."

The horse Henry has experienced the most success on is Tucker, a gray stallion Cates adopted five years ago.

"He was neglected, parasite-ridden and just in terrible shape," Cates said. "But he became one of the best jumpers, qualifying her for some national finals. It's actually quite a story, but that all comes from Sally and her passion for riding."

"He's really brought me through my whole riding career," Henry said. "I really started riding him when I won the 4-H (Junior Horse) State Championship (in 2007). He taught me everything and I taught him everything."

When Henry leaves for South Carolina in the fall, she won't have to leave Tucker behind. Cates recently donated the horse to the university, and Henry was told she could ride her old championship partner whenever she wants.

In addition to all the time Henry spends practicing, she volunteers two hours a week with the Horse and Buddy Riding Program in New Hill, helping special needs children learn to ride. The therapeutic riding program helps build confidence along with physical strength.

Henry admits with all those hours spent near the stable, she doesn't have much time to hang out with her friends or do any other extracurricular activities.

But she says the joy she gets from riding is well worth it.

"(Equestrian) is not like any other sport where you're playing with a ball," Henry said. "You're doing it with a live animal, so you're able to have that personal connection with the horse. I'll never get tired of it."