Horses, those fascinating and graceful animals, will dazzle spectators with their skills and beauty during the 23rd Washington International Horse Show at the Capital Centre, Oct. 25 through Nov. 1. A high point of Washington's social season, the show attracts people who think it's chic to show up, children who go home begging for a pony, would-be cowboys, weekend riders, and many others who enjoy drama and competitive sport.

Some participants are professionals who make a living training and riding other people's horses, but most ride their own horses for the glory and the fun of it. Horse fanciers come from all over the United States and from Italy, England, Spain and Canada for one of the best indoor shows in America. And, it's all for good causes: contributions go to the Girl Scouts, Lions Eye Bank and the People to People Sports Committee.

A large volunteer staff, a horse show secretary and a 65-member board are responsible for the preparations, which begin a year in advance. David Lamb, of Rockville, has helped to organize the show for 15 years and is president of the board this year.

"I used to fox-hunt and show-jump," says Lamb, who also practices law in Washington. "My fantasy is to ride one of the show jumpers, which takes a tremendous amount of skill and a very athletic horse. Those jumper riders ask their horses to vault a seven-foot wall, and they've got to have one strong pair of legs not to go over the animal's head. The jolt when the horse comes down is formidable. It's an awesome thing to watch."

Describing the rivalry between equestrian disciplines, show secretary Karen Beach of Gaithersburg said the jumper riders, who are the backbone of the show, just tolerate the cutting horse competition because they know variety keeps horse shows alive.

"The jumper riders don't watch the event, but I love it. The cowboy's horse cuts a calf away from a group of cattle and then with speed and agility keeps the calf from returning to his friends. It's exactly what they do on a working ranch when they want to brand or take care of a sick animal," Beach explained.

Celebrities add to the fun. Last year Kelly Reno, who starred in the movie "The Black Stallion" appeared with his four-legged co-star. This year Count Domecq will ride a high-stepping Andalusian stallion, one of a Spanish breed that is gaining popularity in America.

Maryland horse lovers eagerly await the chance to participate in the show. Poolesville resident Joe Muldoon is pleased that polo is part of the show for the first time.

"Prince Charles is making the game popular," says Muldoon, who plays at the Potomac Polo Club and will travel to India with his team this year. "The game's a crowd-pleaser. It's like ice hockey except competitors ride 1,000-pound horses going 30 miles an hour. And there's a lot of bumping, especially when you put the game in a smaller place."

Dr. Csaba Magassy, who lives in Potomac, met the woman who became his wife at the show 14 years ago. A plastic surgeon who is riders' physician during the show, he explained that part of his job is taking care of "involuntary dismounts."

Magassy rides on hunt night.

"The camaraderie of fox hunting carries over to the show," said Magassy, who added that the hunt is not a brutal sport, but just a good excuse to get out and ride.

"A healthy fox will outsmart the hounds every time," he explained.

Mary Lisa Nicholson, 14, who lives in Brookville, will ride in the small pony division.

"She's been in the ribbons since she was nine," says Mary's mother, "and she works all year to qualify for this show. Mary's calm when she rides; I'm the nervous wreck because even though they judge the horse, the rider has a lot to do with winning. You can't just sit up there like a passenger."

Mary Ellen Will, of Germantown, said she feels very elegant when she wears her long skirt, top hat and veil for the sidesaddle event. She said riding with both legs on one side of the horse is not very practical but it is fun.

"It's somewhat dangerous," Will explains, "because your legs fit into two pommels on the saddle and if your horse falls, you're stuck. Some women fox-hunt sidesaddle, but mostly you see it in the shows, where there is little chance of an accident."

Will praised the excitement of the horse show. She related a vivid memory of riding into the ring 10 years ago and seeing thousands of people.

"I was petrified," she recalls. "I thought my horse was running away with me, but actually he was going slower than usual. Now I don't even get flustered, I just get butterflies. What's exciting about the show is that so many different people come from all over just because they love one common thing -- the horse."