CHILDREN enchanted with ponies can meet, groom and ride the little equines Saturday afternoon at the Starlight-Starbright Pony Pavilion, a family activity tent set up outside the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) at MCI Center.

Held in conjunction with the 47th annual horse show, the event features ponies, riders and employees from Meadowbrook Stables in Chevy Chase. Admission is free with horse show tickets, or visitors can purchase a separate admission.

"It's more of an educational pavilion," says Sheila Johnson, a prominent area philanthropist and businesswoman who is WIHS president. "There are going to be people there that can talk with parents about what it's like to own a pony, and what's involved in it, that you can either take it up seriously in competition or you can just have it in your back yard."

Stable personnel will demonstrate how to care for ponies.

"They put stethoscopes to the little ponies so that kids can hear the heartbeat. The kids are allowed to brush and groom the ponies. It's a real hands-on process on what it's like to own a pony," says Johnson, whose daughter, Paige, now 21, started riding ponies at 7. "It's a lot of work. Kids will say, 'Oh, I want to have a pony!' They don't understand the amount of work; it is all-consuming. It's like having a gigantic dog."

Four or five ponies will be available for rides, during which kids can have their pictures taken, while three to four more animals will be on hand for petting and grooming.

Visitors also can participate in several activities run by volunteers from the Starlight-Starbright Children's Foundation Mid-Atlantic, a nonprofit organization that promotes fun events for seriously ill children and their families. All proceeds from Pony Pavilion admission will benefit the foundation, this year's principal WIHS charity.

"Because part of what Starlight does is provide diversionary activities to children in the hospitals, we decided to do some of the things we would do with our Starlight families for the public," says Cara Martin, the foundation's executive director. Highlights include caricatures, face painting, temporary tattoos and at least two arts and crafts stations. Kids can make greeting cards to distribute to hospitalized children and create horse- and Halloween-themed magnets to take home. Hourly guessing games will feature stuffed ponies as prizes, Martin says.

Families can pick up information about Starlight-Starbright and its activities, along with movie posters and other materials from DreamWorks, the studio owned in part by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who co-founded Starlight-Starbright.

There also will be photographs signed by players from the Washington Mystics, the WNBA team co-owned by Johnson.

Some parents note that the opportunity to interact with ponies increases their children's desires to own one, Johnson says.

"I did not buy my daughter a pony right away," says Johnson, whose daughter outgrew ponies years ago but continues to ride horses and compete annually in the WIHS. "I had her go to Meadowbrook Stables, and she spent a year there helping to groom, seeing what it was like; she rode lots of ponies at the stables.

"I wanted to make sure this was something she really wanted to do before I got that involved!"

STARLIGHT-STARBRIGHT PONY PAVILION -- In front of Hotel Monaco, 700 F St. NW, near MCI Center (Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown). 202-293-7827. Saturday from 1 to 4. Admission is free to Washington International Horse Show ticket holders; non-ticket holders pay $5 per person or $10 for a family of up to five. Admission covers all Pony Pavilion activities. The Washington International Horse Show ends Sunday. For tickets ($15-$60), call Ticketmaster at 202-397-7328.

A youngster takes a ride at last year's Pony Pavilion at the Washington International Horse Show. This year's pavilion benefits the nonprofit Starlight-Starbright Children's Foundation Mid-Atlantic.