The only thing that changes on the 11-month horse show circuit is the name of the city. Week after week, the horses live in portable stalls under circus-style tents while their owners and riders are stabled in the closest available Holiday Inn.

"It's more like a small town that travels," said Mrs. John M. Stroud of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, who is serving as show steward this week at the Washington International at Capital Centre. "Some people have been together every week since the circuit began last January in Florida."

This week the tents are set up in the parking lot of Capital Centre for eight days and nights of every conceivable type of competition, from small pony hunters to international open jumpers. The Washington show represents the home stretch of the indoor tour.

The horse show fraternity is a tightly knit group in which everyone -- groom, trainer, rider and owner -- is on a first-name basis with everyone else. For most, the day begins before dawn and often ends after midnight. Most people are hesitant to leave the familiar surroundings of the show to venture into the host city. They'd rather be with their horses.

"They feel comfortable in their environment," says a horse show official who feels the same way.

"I love the people and it complements my ego," said Barney Ward, 38, a professional rider from Brewster, N.Y., who has been on the circuit for 20 years. "A lot of people here will tell you they don't like it, but they are lying."

Ward is best known for setting the indoor high jump record of 7 feet 5 inches on Lucky Hit at the 1978 Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. "The showing is for your ego. You don't make money," he said. "You make money selling horses. But I know that I have done something that no one else has done. When you know that you're the only one who has jumped that high, it makes you feel good."

After he fell and broke his neck two years ago, Ward said, "I just couldn't think of doing anything else." Within four months he was back in the saddle. Seven months after the fall, he set the high jump record.

Cynsie Buffinton, 21, of Westport, Conn., makes a living braiding manes, earning between $50 and $150 a day. She dropped out of the University of Utah after two years to stay on the horse show circuit. "You get so excited," she said. "You think, 'Oh boy, the indoor shows,' and then you get there and it's a letdown. Every town looks the same after a while.

"People think they are well-traveled, but most never go into the town they are in," said Buffinton, who sometimes stays up all night braidng manes. "Most people never go out of the hotel to eat. But I go out to run and drive around to see new things," she said.

Eugene Joe Johnson, known to insiders as "Seaweed,' would do just about anything to stay on the circuit. "With me it's like a hobby because I've done so many things," he said. "I used to work on the C&O barge for about 12 years. It was good money in the spring and summer but nothing in the winter."

Seaweed has given his age as 39 for as long as anyone can remember and has done everything from cooking hamburgers in makeshift kitchens to mucking stalls. This week, he is earning $3.75 an hour as the "official gate opener," opening the gate to the horse show ring. "I hope to get that raised next year," he said.

"I enjoy traveling and the whole atmosphere of the people and the horses," said John Ammerman, show manager and co-owner of the company that supplies the jumps to the majority of shows on the circuit.

Ammerman, of Dickerson, Md., got his start at the Washington show. "We built the jumps in 1965 and I worked at night to do it. I was a carpenter at the time and it just grew into a full-time thing." Now, he travels 40 weeks a year with jumps in tow. "The life and the work just kinda fit, that's all."

Following last night's Open Jumping class, Ward moved into a first place tie with Buddy Brown in the National Rider Champion standings with nine points.

Ward placed third in the class, won by Conrad Homfeld on Balbuco following a nine-way jumpoff against the clock. Homfeld took 29.66 seconds over a shortened and twisting course of seven jumps. Brown, on Felton, placed second in 31.60.

The twisting courses and narrow arena caused some problems earlier in the day when one horse, Nashville, ridden by Dan Langan, fell and was unconscious for five minutes. Horse and rider both recovered and walked out of the ring. During the evening sessin, one of the eight Budweiser Clydesdales slipped and caused a minor delay in the exhibition while attendants untangled the massive animals from the harness.