They've read all the Saddle Club novels and subscribe to Horse Illustrated magazine. After school, while their classmates play soccer or gab on the phone, they head to the stables, where they feed Happy Meals to their ponies and then ride them over jumps, high and fast. Their arms are muscled from shoveling stalls and pushing wheelbarrows of hay.

So Sunday was an unbelievably huge day for many of the girls who ride horses at the Columbia Horse Center on Gorman Road, one of nine or so riding stables in the county.

The annual Columbia Classic Grand Prix, a jumping contest for a $30,000 purse, had all the typical trappings of a horse show: straw hats, linen dresses, a raffle for a Mercedes and a good cause--financial aid for Howard Community College students.

But that highfalutin scene was lost on these young spectators, preteens and teenagers from Clarksville and Towson and so on, who cared only about two things: all those "gorgeous" horses and the stars who rode them. For these girls, many of whom get to see pros in person only once a year, it was a chance to swarm them for autographs, admire the gleaming coats on their mounts and dream of one day being just like them.

As 16-year-old Kelley McGaffin asserted as she watched the well-postured riders circle the ring: "Within 10 years, we will be there."

Before the jumpers competed, there was a presentation from Randy Bird, also known as "Canada's Man From Snowy River," a sort-of horse whisperer who trains the animals without aggression, whipping the ground but not them. After his demonstration, the girls crowded him to autograph their programs, and he handed his whip to Bentley Fazi, 11--"Can I get you to hold that for me?"--and her eyes said Look, I'm getting to hold Randy Bird's whip! They gave their names; he gave advice, with the same gentleness that he shows his horses and a soft, sure cowboy's voice.

"My horse, I tried to walk him over a log, and he just jumped," one little girl said.

"Let him smell it," Bird suggested. "Let him get used to it."

"My horse, he's head-shy. He doesn't want me to pet him."

"Just keep doing it. Keep petting his eyes. Just keep petting him."

The girls had the run of the place, because their riding teacher, Michele Markward, was the paddock master for the event, coordinating the riders. When the contest started, the girls leaned against the wooden fence--front row--a line of ponytails and tank tops. They watched as, one by one, the riders took their horses through the obstacle course of fences at least four feet high. A rider is penalized with faults each time a horse knocks a pole down or refuses to take a jump, or if the rider takes longer than the prescribed time to get through the course. And they came under close scrutiny from the girls.

The night before, the horses stayed at Columbia Horse Center, and the girls visited them, so that by the time the contest started, they had their favorites. For Ashley Coyle, 15, one was Astound ("I looove this horse"), who was doing fine until, midway through, he decided to stop jumping.

"His rider's, like, beating him," she said.

"Oooh. He's lost his confidence," McGaffin added.

The girls know what they're talking about--they compete and have the ribbons and all manner of scrapes and scars to prove it. Their form of competition is slightly different, though. In equitation and hunter's riding, which they do, they're judged by their form, not just whether they clear the jumps. Grand Prix jumping is a little different, a little looser, which is why after an event like this, they pelt Markward with questions: "Why weren't their heels down? Their legs tight?"

"When you're at this level," Markward told them, "you can be that loose, too."

The girls gasped as the shiny brown Country Club refused a jump, threw its rider, galloped off the course, out of the ring--no regard to the spectators that he missed--across the field and leapt right into his trailer. Where's the horse whisperer when you need him?

They gushed "he's sooo cute" a lot, although it was hard to tell if they were talking about the horses (usually) or the male riders (just one of them, they insisted). They admired the beauty of the beasts. "I just want to sit on one of those horses--just to say that I did," McGaffin said.

The girls gave the sort of scream one hears at the end of rock concerts when their hero, Marilyn Little, jumped a flawless course aboard Traumjule. The George Washington University freshman and Frederick native won the day's amateur event and was competing in the bigs at the unusually young age of 17.

Once the first round was finished, the course was shortened, some fences were heightened, and the six horses with no faults competed in a timed jump-off. When Little won with another perfect ride--her first Grand Prix victory--and circled the ring with a big smile, McGaffin said: "This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. Nothing can stop me."

Before you assume that all these girls do is ride and think about horses, ask Bentley how she got those nasty blisters on her left hand. "Nintendo," she said. "Mario Party."

But ask them if there's anything they love as much as horses, and, besides "No," there was only one answer: "Ponies."

Staff writer Amy Joyce contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Alison Firestone guides her horse Gustl P over a jump. The Grand Prix, which is one of the country's top equestrian events, raises money for Howard Community College and attracts a large crowd, right.

CAPTION: Tracy Bartko guides Argus over a jump in front of the grandstand during the 12th annual Columbia Classic Grand Prix, a jumping contest with a $30,000 purse.

CAPTION: Molly Wilson, 11, of Ellicott City, gets an autograph from Marilyn Little, a Frederick native, who won her first Grand Prix this year in Columbia.