JASPER, FLA. -- Horse back riders from as far away as Maryland began arriving Friday morning at the McCulley Farm in Jasper, Fla., to experience the three-day Withlacoochee Trail Ride and Jam.

Friday began the sixth ride since the trail ride began in October 1999 when 31 riders arrived at the farm of T.C. McCulley and his son, Richard. Due to the popularity of the ride, the numbers have increased to about 115. Many of the original riders were back to enjoy the trails that snake through the longleaf yellow pines and flood plains near the Withlacoochee River.

Two of the original riders were Jud and Jennette Curtis from Tallahassee, Fla. Both are experienced horseback riders. Jud has been riding for about 50 years and rode horseback in North Carolina, Vermont, Arizona and the Red Wood Forest in California. Jennette has been riding for over 25 years and accompanied her husband on every ride.

The Curtises arrived early Thursday to set up camp. Their reasons for returning to the Withlacoochee trail ride center not only on the rides, entertainment and food offered during the three days, but the human element as well.

"Actually it's the McCulleys and the ride," Jennette said. "It's a beautiful ride, the river is beautiful. This is one of the rides I like to support. We tell them (riders) about the entertainment and dancing. The McCulleys put a lot into each year."

Due to his experience, Jud is one of the trail leaders and was preparing to check out trails Friday morning for today's ride along the Withlacoochee River. "We keep trying to add to the ride," Jud said.

Richard McCulley said that some riders will arrive today for the six-hour ride along the Withlacoochee River, which is considered to be the favorite ride during the event. However, it's the family type atmosphere that makes this ride so appealing, he said.

"They get to be themselves, and I consider them family," Richard said. "These people respect the environment, and they don't litter."

Karen Shiver of Monticello, Fla., has been riding for 35 years and was one of the original riders in 1999. Her reason for returning is the beautiful ride, good food and good people.

Friday night the riders were treated to music by the Tri-County Blue Grass Band, and tonight they will be entertained by Next of Kin, a country western band. A barbecue chicken dinner will be open to the public with a $7 gate fee.

Another thing this year that's different, from previous rides is the addition of several family groups and more young kids.

Lynne Ligouri, Palm City, Fla. has done her part to bring more families to the ride. She has recommended it to friends in Columbus, Fort Pierce and Gainesville, Fla., and is responsible for about eight to 10 families attending this ride.

"This is the best and the hospitality is the best," Ligouri said.

T.C. McCulley was happy with the turnout and enjoys seeing the same people returning. "We enjoy the people," he said. "They're very nice people who come on these trail rides.

To contact reporter Rip Prine, please call 244-3400, ext. 237.

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