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There is something about horses, a person either has the “horse gene” or they don't.

Helene Simpson and her daughter, Julianne, definitely have it.

As an incentive for Julianne to buckle down in high school math class, Simpson and her husband, Ed, used the promise of getting a horse if her marks improved.

Soon, the grades were there, and the couple kept their promise and leased a horse. Julianne took her horse care responsibilities seriously.

“The horse's stall was cleaner than her room,” Simpson said, adding that when the choice came between horses and boys, horses won out for her daughter, who recently earned a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, completing her clinical year at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Simpson had an interest in horseback riding, too, and the activity was a good one to share.

“We bonded a lot as a teenager and a mother. I lived my dream through my daughter,” said Simpson, president of Southern Maryland Trail Riders, an equestrian group founded nearly 25 years ago to give riders an opportunity to take part in noncompetitive trail-riding activities.

About 200 people are club members, with an average of 40 to 70 showing up for the once-a-month trail rides that are held March through December around the region.

The group rides trails in state parks and on private farms — offering riders a glimpse of Southern Maryland properties they might not have otherwise seen.

“They find places to ride in Maryland that you wouldn't see,” said Mary Gerard, who has been a member with her daughter, Stephanie Dixon, for about 10 years. “You pay your dues, show up and ride.”

Rides at Maxwell Hall allow riders to meander in the Patuxent River, twilight rides feature marked trails lit by the shine of glow sticks and some events are overnighters, where members can camp out the night before the ride.

The group also takes part in community events and service.

Over the past five years, the group has raised more than $10,000 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital through its Saddle Up trail ride, and has established and maintained parks around Southern Maryland and on private farms in four counties. It also teams up with other riding groups, like 4-H's Horsemasters.

On a recent judged trail ride at Jug Bay Park in Croom, a handful of riders and horses took part in a series of obstacles — going up and down hills and backing in to an area — while other riders showed up just to ride around the park for a few hours, enjoying the scenery and answering age-old questions.

Judy Young of Avenue was riding the trail when a tree came crashing down in the woods.

“And?” Ed Simpson asked, “Did it make a noise?”

“Loud noise,” Young answered.

Ed Simpson and his son, Ben, might not have the same level of enthusiasm as Simpson and Julianne have for equines, but they come along on trail rides to prepare food and help out where they are needed.

“The hardest thing about horseback riding is the ground,” Ed said.

Other riders can't wait to get out on the trail.

“The connection you have with your horse is not the same when you're just walking or hiking,” said Heather Drake of Indian Head, who rides 2-year-old Zena. “It's a relationship.”

“And they never tell your secrets,” said Lucinda O'Harran of Accokeek, who took her horse, Ellie, a rescue, on the trail.

“If you're a horse person, you're a horse person,” Drake said. “You can have the worst day of your life ...”

“You can talk about work, and they don't care,” O'Harran continued.

“They are the most expensive therapist in the world,” Drake joked.

Brandy Glenn of Mechanicsville grew up loving horses. While she's been riding for more than a decade, her husband, William, just started getting into riding.

Riding is a “stress reliever,” said Glenn, who has two horses, Mattie and Pippy. “You have to concentrate on what you're doing; you can't be thrown off by outside problems.”

Strangers who join the group don't stay strangers for long.

“We all have the same thing in common,” said Beth Mutch of California, who grew up in a ranching family among horses. “We're all horse people.”

The group has novices to experts, but some experience with riding is helpful, Helene Simpson said.

“You have to be safe,” she said. “You need to know how to handle a horse, have the basics down.”

Joining the trail riders gives horse owners and horse lovers who might lease a horse and board them at a farm the chance to take them out into a different environment.

“You can come out to a trail ride instead of riding a horse around an arena because the world is not flat,” Simpson said.