My daughter, right at this moment, loves horses and, as sometimes happens when children develop intense interests, it educates the parents.

This time, on a Sunday afternoon, I learned something about the true nature of horse shows. I thought horse shows, especially jumpers going over fences, belonged to rich people, the town-and-country tweeds.

What we discovered at one of the stables in Rock Creek Park was an extraordinary sense - hundreds of ordinary folks (instantly recognizable as middle-middle (Americans) gathered to ride and jump in friendly competition. Scores of well-muscled horses. Friendly banter. The easy amblience of a country fair, right in the city.

But more starting still was the awesome fleet of monster vehicles assembled for this horse show. Bumper-to-bumper horse vans were parked around the ring. Not just your little single-horse trailers, but huge trucks with fancy interiors, capable of hauling four horses or six horses - gas-guzzling horse stables on wheels.

Only in America, right? The puritan in me was naturally offended by the grossness. All that mechanical horsepower assembled for the purpose of playing horse-and-rider. You could probably run Europe on the oil Americans devoted to such non-essential marvels as horse vans.

But the small-d democrat in me felt good. I would like the kings and queens of Europe to come to Rock Creek Park some Sunday afternoon and try to guess who these people are. They are just regular people, ordinary Americans, enjoying a sport invented for dukes and earls.

Automobiles, camper vans, pick-up trucks - they are gross, luxurious wasteful vehicles. But they are also democratic engines. The horse show reminded me that someone ought to say this, now that the puritans are mounting another offensive.

I think cars and Interstate highways and even those ridiculous summer-homes-on-wheels called "recreation vehicles" spread equalitarium life values through America - the values of time and mobility - and they spread these qualities downward in our society, more directly than any patch-up government programs. Cars give poor people more choices. If government regulation were to cripple the automobile society, in the name of saving oil, it would most surely hurt the least first and hardest, then ripple upward on the economic ladder to the rich, whose lives would not suffer at all ( I am reasonably certain that government regulation will not be allowed to cripple the automobile because too many politicians understand that the very idea contains the needs of class war).

I can't prove these claims with statistics but anyone who has traveled much around this country has seen what I mean. The new pattern of country living is a man or woman who drives 100 or 150 miles a day from their farm or small town for a job in a medium-sized city. In Kentucky, people who live in benighted mountain counties drive the turnpike to good jobs in Lexington. In Illinois, a woman drives 140 miles a day commuting from Carbondale to Mt. Vernon. In the West, the distances are more awesome still.

The range of these working people in the country has been defined by the Interstates and, of course, it has greatly increased their job choices. The practice of long-distance commuting, outside metropolitan areas, has increased dramatically in the last few years, so has the population in those places. The energy statistics may put that mileage down in the luxury column, but I doubt that it looks that way to those people.

Here's another thing that doesn't show up very clearly in the statistics: cars help people, especially poor people, to create their own private "social security" systems to cope with their big problems - unemployment, family trouble, poverty. You can run away from home in a car (and also return when you get homesick).The Okies drove to California in the 1930s and that process, less obvious and dramatic, is still in motion today, all over this country.

I first saw it years ago in Cincinnati, my hometown, where thousands of Appalachian mountaineers - "hillbillies," we called them - came north to look for work. They lived in the slums and were widely despised, and many could not find jobs.

But they did not just migrate to the city - they went back and forth, frequently. They might return to the home place in eastern Kentucky during lean times, come back to the city when jobs opened up, drive home to the mountains on the weekends, where friends and family were around for comfort. These were painful times, but the old cars they drove were part of easing the pain. The Cincinnati bridges are still jammed with cars, heading south, on Friday afternoons.

You can find the same thing on Indian reservations. Talk to the most impoverished families in a remote canyon of a South Dakota reservation and it is likely that some of them have been to Chicago or Cleveland or San Francisco.There are no jobs on the reservation; they do not like the wretched life in the cities. So they move back and forth, searching earnestly for modest improvement in their lives.

And it is not just the traveling around, private and unplanned by the economists. It is the idea of traveling that is important to us, transcending all class lines. This notion, the roaming American, is as old as the republic but it has survived, miraculously, in a new mythology built around the automobile (and lately the van).

The car is a subterranean linkage in this broad country: expressed in mad non-stop dashes from coast to coast, burning across the heartland's all night radio band, tripping the continent on adrenalin. If you have not done it, if you don't undetstand why other people do it, read Kerouac's "On the Road" or Algren's "Walk on the Wild Side."

Cars are our leap into sensational experiences: I remember leaving lower Manhattan at midnight, plunging into the greasy air of the Lincoln tunnel and 30 hours later we were sitting in a drugstore in a steamy small town of Mississippi, drinking Coke and listening to the dead voice of the counterman. Thirty hours later, we were in the rain forest of Mexico where tarantula sometimes cross the highway.

I remember a wreck on the West Coast, coming back north, where a Mexican nun in a white habit sewed up my forehead. We limped north on buses and hitchiking, feling suspicious of ourselves without a car. I knew I was home at a used-car lot in Tucson when the salesman warned us: "This car ain't got no garantee, you know." He was from West Virginia, a familiar voice and I can still hear it, though this was 20 years ago.

These cars, I think, burned images in all our young minds - painful, frantic, gaudy moments, sometimes suicidal, occasionally triumphant. I am thankful that I lived through it (a few friends did not) and I can still say that it seemed necessary, those escapes by car. Adults, I discovered later, are not so different, only more cautious as drivers. Think of Joan Didion's heroine in "Play It As It Lays," driving, the freeways of Los Angeles for hours, days, suspended animation at 80 miles an hour.

This is all very untidy. Economically wasteful. In a better world, people would not wander around like this, burning up gasoline in futile searches (in a better world, people would not be poor or spiritually desperate). Still, there's an explosion waiting, I think, if the government tries to price American out or their wandering.

If you want to see what it looks like, examine a Latin American city where the poor lack mobility - where they stack up in the cities and build tarpaper slums, unable to find work and unable to return home.

Right now, the puritans are bringing up Europe again, to make us feel bad. Europe is more efficient, less wastefule. Europe does not squander oil the way we do. This is beyond dispute, but there are reasons which the puritans do not mention.

For one thing, we have lots of people in this country who drive the equivalent of halfway across France ever day, just getting to work and back. The French do not do that much, espcially the poorer French. It is a smaller place, more crowded, with less wandering.

Also the poor people in France do not own cars. They have motor scooters or bikes or they walk. With good fortune, they but the bottom-of-the-line Citroen, a noisy sluggish beast which would strain its guts out driving halfway across France everyday.

These are my impressions from Europe. I looked up some statistics which confirm them. For starters, there are 245 million cars in the world - and 45 per cent of them are owned by Americans. In the United States, there is more than one car for every two citizens. In thrifty West Germany, which we are supposed to emulate in energy matters, there is one car for every four citizens.

People in West Germany or france don't need cars as much - they live closer together in villages and towns and they move around less (and besides gasoline costs more than $1.50 a gallon). The population per square mile in America is 60 people. In France it is 250 people. In Germany it is 650.

I could not find any statistics to show who owns cars in Europe and who doesn't. I would be happy to bet my seven-year-old Ford station wagon that it is not the rich who sacrifices their mobility to save oil (if you saw the condition of my station wagon, you would not take it on a bet).

But Europe does have something which America doesn't have in automobiles: efficient design. European cars are smaller, less exotic, less powerful, but in the medium and upper price ranges they are as comfortable for families as American cars, merely less gross (if Detroit would sell Americans the same cars which it markets overseas, it would save us a lot of oil).

But here is something else that Europeans enjoy: speed. Strange but true that Frenchmen are driving along their Autoroute in smaller cars at 80 to 100 miles and hour while America chugs along the Interstates in their behemoths at 55 m.p.h.

If we are talking about inefficiency, this is one of the grossest inefficiency in America today. This nation spent billions of dollars building a rational system of high-speed highways: yet now millions of Americans are wasting millions of hours of their lives, driving slow in order to save a little oil. I know all the pieties about already defeating that anyway with CB radios and native American stealth. If Americans drove better-designed cars, thy could drive a lot faster, more efficiently.

Time and mobility. What I'm getting at is that the political solutions to the energy problems will make a lot more sense - and will have at least a prayer of popular acceptance - if the energy debate recognizes the importance of those values in the automobile, especially for the less privileged. The solutions could aim to preserve those social values - even enhance them - instead of denouncing us for statiscal luxuries.

All sorts of wild ideas might flow from that recognition - that America is not Europe and there is no way it can become Europe (and no reason why it should want to). In the best American tradition, we can steal the best ideas from Europe and throw back the rest.

So why not make a deal with American car owners? When the nation's fleet of gross monsters becomes smaller and less wasteful, they can go back to driving 80 miles an hour on the Interstates. Make a trade: size for time, grossness in exchange for speed.

Or, since we are subsidizing every good thing in life and commerce, how about a federal program to help people buy new cars - more efficient cars, naturally - for the people who are driving old clunkers and can't afford new models? This sells cars for Detroit, reduces air pullution, saves oil and helps poor people.

Who could be against all those good things? It's as American as stock-car racing.