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Student riding high at Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center
Sam Cheney
Sam Cheney removes the bridle from Apache following a lesson at Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center on Oct. 13. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
Sam Cheney
South Effingham High School junior Sam Cheney, 17, rides Apache on a course at Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center on Oct. 13. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

GUYTON — Regardless of which direction she rides her trusty steed, 17-year-old Sam Cheney is always headed toward progress at Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center (FETC). It’s been that way for a long time.

Sam, a junior at South Effingham High School, has taken once-a-week lessons at the facility at 243 Appaloosa Way since 2009. 

“She always looks forward to coming,” said Brenda Cheney, Sam’s mother, during a recent training session. “It’s joy to watch her do something that she enjoys.”

FETC’s goal is to help students with special challenges gain confidence and self-esteem. Sam has Prader-Willi syndrome. Symptoms of the genetic disorder include weak muscles and mild to moderate intellectual impairment.

“She’s kind of floppy and doesn’t have a lot of strength in her core,” Mrs. Cheney said. “Her endocrinologist really wanted her to have (equestrian training). I didn’t know what it was but I thought I’d look it up.”

The decision to employ FETC has paid rich dividends for Sam.

“Just her ability to sit up on a horse is a really good thing for her,” Mrs. Cheney said. “Being able to manage her core, to sit up straight, not lean to one side or the other, to be able to balance is significant for any kid with a disability to do. For her to have physical control of her legs, control with her hands and arms, is a plus.

“This also has allowed her to progress with directions. She can now follow multiple directions.”

FETC began in 2006 and is a premier accredited center of the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH). It is one of seven premier accredited centers in Georgia and the only one located in the southern half of the state.

Sam started her FETC journey on a small horse named Cody. Two side walkers and a lead assisted her.

“The side walkers hold on to (the students’) legs,” Cheney said. “They will basically hold their ankle and then over the thigh. (Sam) held on to the lead ropes but didn’t do anything.

“The leader basically leads the horse.”

Soon, Sam needed just one side walker and began to take some control of her horse.

“She would do a little more work of the steering and actual navigating of the horse through whatever they had set up in the ring,” Cheney said. “Eventually, we got rid of the side walkers in general.”

Sam progressed to a standard-sized horse and lost the need for a lead. Now she fully controls Apache, a standard-sized horse she loves deeply.

“Sam has a regular sibling and she can’t (ride a horse),” Cheney said. “Her older sister says, ‘I’m not getting on it.’ A lot of kids here are doing things regular kids can’t do.

“I’m not getting on a horse, either.”

Mrs. Cheney said Sam has been undaunted by occasional failures.

“She has fallen off a couple times but she got right back on him,” she explained. “When she was three or four years old, I never envisioned she would do this. When she first started trotting by herself, I thought, ‘Ohhhhhh!’ 

“She loves trotting. That’s her favorite thing. She holds on and goes.”

Elizabeth Todd has been Sam’s teacher since joining FETC about a year ago.

“She was my first student so she told me exactly how to do things,” joked Todd, a certified PATH instructor. “Her ability to multi-task and stay focused has definitely increased. That’s her biggest struggle — just staying on task.

“She’s gentle, kind and pays attention.”

Cheney strongly recommends FETC for children with special needs.

“It creates independence for them and something for them to do,” she said. “It gives them responsibility and the knowledge that they have done something, that they have succeeded in something.”

Sam greatly enjoys associating with Apache.

“I like to brush him,” she said. “I like to get him ready and ride him.”

Cheney said socialization has never been a problem for Sam.

“She interacts with everybody,” Cheney said. “She never has a problem. If the horse would talk back to her, she would enjoy that even more because she talks to him like he is going to talk back to her.”

Contact FETC at (912) 728-3728.