Many of Savanna Southard's friends were surprised when she told them she received an athletic scholarship to attend the University of South Carolina.

Southard, a senior at Berkeley High School, competes in a sport not offered at most high schools in the state. She is an equestrian.

"None of them knew you could get a scholarship for being an equestrian," Southard said. "And it's not a sport at my high school, so no one really knew."

The NCAA recognized equestrian as a varsity sport in 1998, and it has grown from six teams to 23. The University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston were among the first schools in the nation to declare equestrian as a varsity sport. The NCAA requires 40 teams to make it a championship sport. USC has won National Collegiate Equestrian Association titles in 2005 and '07.

"It's definitely a growing sport, one of the fastest-growing in college," said USC equestrian coach Boo Major, a former chairman of the Varsity Equestrian Steering Committee that was organized to promote equestrian to other universities. "We hit a little hiccup with the economy and with the past (presidential) administration that didn't stress Title IX as much as would have liked. But things are starting to get better, and a lot of institutions are showing interest in adding an equestrian team."

Southard was 8 years old when she rode her first horse at a Girl Scout plantation in Huger.

"I just loved it," Southard said. "It's something I just couldn't get enough of. I loved the sport, but had no idea I would ever get a scholarship."

Southard travels to Camden three times a month to practice. But that journey pales in comparison to the trips she's made for competition. Her parents, Katie and Lee Southard, estimate she has traveled about 45,000 miles to compete.

"I've traveled to Florida, Mississippi, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Texas and Georgia to compete," Southard said. "What I love most about it is being around the barns with the horses and making new friends."

Southard, who is a cheerleader and editor of the school newspaper and yearbook, plans to pursue a degree in special education at USC.

Even though the equine industry is big business in South Carolina, Major said it is tough to find top-notch talent in the state.

"It's very popular in South Carolina, but we don't have the elite equestrians," she said. "We recruit all over and we do spend less time at the high schools. We spend a lot of time at American Quarter Horse Association events. We're looking forward to having Savanna on our team. There's a special place in my heart for riders from South Carolina."

South Carolina and the College of Charleston have the only NCAA equestrian programs in the state, and USC is the only scholarship program. South Carolina has the equivalent of 15 full scholarships to spread out among 40 team members.

The College of Charleston no longer competes at the NCAA level, but has one of the top programs in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. The Cougars have competed in the IHSA regionals 24 times since 1983 and have won the regional title 20 times. The team has won 226 of 260 competitions since 1983 under coach Bob Story.

The Cougars have two Wando graduates on the team: Deryn Hanipel and Cassidy Hurt.

Follow Phil Bowman on Twitter at @pandcphil.