YOU KNOW horse shows, right? Tweedy women who stomp around in boots and carry those weird-looking walking sticks, the ones that fold out into seats no rump was designed to perch on. Men who ought to have something better to do, who talk about "good hands" and are not referring to football. And horses -- those large sweaty creatures that attract horseflies and little girls, create manure, and have no safe end (the one that doesn't kick has teeth).
So who wants to go to a horse show? You do, if it's the annual Washington International Horse Show, at the Capital Centre through Sunday. You want to go because it's fun. It's fun whether or not you've ever sat on a horse, or even cared to. I've been going to the International for two decades, and I guarantee that you don't have to know anything about the equine species to have a good time. You just have to know the good times to go, when the jumping events are as hot and heavy as the horses themselves. Pick any night this weekend and you won't go wrong.
You can even take a date, someone other than your little sister. This is one horse show that can be glamorous. It's indoors, with nighttime sessions under bright lights. In the expensive box seats, black tie is not unusual. They roll out the red carpet -- literally -- for the beautiful people of the horse world to present the trophies. During international events (this year, teams from France, Canada, and the U.S. will be competing), the horses wear saddlepads decorated with their nation's flag, and the national anthem of the winner is played at the end. Liz Taylor, National Velvet herself, took part in the opening ceremonies for the Bicentennial year.
Even the horses are good performers. I remember one jumper who was part comedian, part acrobat, and also part Clydesdale. Clydesdales have tree-trunk legs which are covered with long silky hair called feathers. They're draft horses, meant to pull, not to soar gracefully over high fences. But evidently this was a horse who had seen "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Looking like a country cousin to the elegant creatures preceding him, he galumphed over the jumps, clearing each one with a buck and a good-natured kick of his feathered heels. The crowd roared; it was like rooting for Riggins in the old days.
Then there are the riders, who have a sense of humor all their own. One Halloween night, a horse was ridden over the fences by a gentleman wearing a jack-o-lantern on his head . . . and absolutely nothing else. Not just a prank, it was an exhibition of raw courage.
If courage in the raw turns you on, plan to go Friday night for the event called Puissance. Derived from the French word for power, the Puissance requires a powerful amount of guts. This is the "high jump" event, where a plywood fence painted to look like a stone wall gets raised to impossible altitudes, far higher than a horse can see over. The official record is 7 feet 7 1/2 inches, but by all means hold your breath -- records get broken, miraculously more often than bones.
You may see a refusal or two in this event, basically a horse deciding at the last second that he ain't Pegasus: Simple horse sense.
Go on Saturday night for fun and games, when the open jumping event is a pairs relay: two horses in the ring together, taking turns over the jumps. And in honor of Halloween, the riders bedeck themselves and even their mounts in fancy dress. You won't think Edith Head was in charge, but the theme-oriented costumes of these jocular jockeys are always imaginative and sometimes outrageous. Michael Jackson on his Victory Tour was a highlight a few years back, and the horses stole the show with a version of the moonwalk that would have behooved Michael himself.
Sunday is closing night, when all kidding is put aside. For the big event, the President's Cup Grand Prix jumping, a sadistic course designer chooses a bunch of scary fences, some spread wide, some raised high, some both, and links them with hairpin turns. It's a timed event, and even the cautious riders (there really are a few) leave no corner uncut in their rush to beat the clock. Pay attention to the in-and-out: a series of fences set so close together that the horse has room for only one or two strides -- sometimes none -- before he's faced with the next jump. Feel free to sit on the edge of your seat, and be sure to pick a favorite. Rooting is half the fun.
THE HORSEY SET-TO -- The Washington International Horse Show is at the Capital Centre Friday through Sunday at 7:30. Evening tickets ($10 to $30) at the box office or TicketCenter/PhoneCharge. Call 432-0200 to order, 840-0281 for information. Benefits Children's Hospital and other Washington charities.