Upstairs, rickety wooden stands are transformed into pricey shops hawking outlandish apparel, knickknacks, leather and gold accessories. The far end of the stands appears as a Paris cafe, with umbrellas, flowers, white lights and linen tablecloths. Below, in the ring, simple wooden gateposts are layered in many-colored flowers and shrubbery and pretend bricks. The horses trot into the ring, their riders arrayed in prim riding jackets and shiny black boots.
The Washington International Horse Show at Capital Center this week is certainly a sight to behold. But what is seen is really an elaborate illusion.
"Only when you look under the surface do you appreciate what's going on," said champion international rider Peter Leone of Team Crown Royal.
The trip from upstairs to what is below is more than a few steps: It's a peek into the undergirding of a horse show, the hay-choked machinery that grinds from before sunup until after midnight. The real work goes on out of sight, where knee-high boots are a necessity and where life revolves around a horse's well-being.
Horses "are like human athletes. If one of them's in a bad mood or something happened that scared them, they won't function," said Cindy Bozan, an all-purpose trainer-groom from Colts Neck, N.J.
The courageous horse who emerges in the ring is a result of a little horse psychology, kindergarten-like play and repetitive training and cleansing. The folks who accomplish it are seen rarely.
"It seems a little bit simple out there -- just somebody riding a horse," said Ken Berkley, a trainer with Rivers Edge Farms in Flemington, N.J. "But it's very, very complex. It takes a lot to come in here and win. There are so many variables -- insight, foresight and hindsight."
"It's really hard sometimes. It's a people thing. You're dealing with very wealthy people and they demand a lot because they spend a lot," said trainer Gary Zook, Berkley's partner. "These are strong, powerful people and there's a lot of pressure."
Much of the pressure comes because what appears natural for the horse in the ring is anything but second nature.
"In the end it's what the trainer has or hasn't done," said Bozan.
Events begin at 8 a.m. Stablehands, grooms and trainers arrive in the massive tents that serve as stables at 3 a.m. They feed the horses, clean them and take them to a practice ring to flush excess energy that can become disobedience or jitters in the ring.
"The rider is more nervous. He'll squeeze hard and you don't want the horse shooting out like a bullet," said Richard Slocum, a trainer in Charlottesville with Watership Downs Farms. Berkley, Zook and Slocum slumped together in the upper row of seats shortly after the day of showing began. They'd been on the job six hours and had at least 12 more to go.
"It's been a bad day," said Berkley. A deluge of rain had turned the backlot into a swirling lake and the schooling rings into slush. Conditions notwithstanding, whether a trainer has done his job is apparent.
"If the rider screws up, it's usually obvious. But if the horse is kicking, spooking, shying, that means they needed more preparation in the morning," said Slocum.
Until competition concludes around 11 p.m., the workers repeat the routine many times, readying horses to compete and retiring others following their performance.
Bringing the horses from stable to ring, each groom carries a small bucket containing all he'll need to make the horse look spiffy: brush, cloth, baby oil, hoof paint. Sweaty horses become composed beauties, while the groom remains in a perpetual state of grime. The life of a groom may seem pure drudgery, but for many this life is seductive.
"There's something about it, I've tried to stop and I always end up coming back," said Bozan, who dabbled in retail. "It's a sickness."
"And I always end up coming back and it's certainly not for the money," she said. "I love horses but there's no money in it for me. That's my story."
At a show of this type, boarding can cost about $1,000 a week for one horse. Feed, training and incidentals bump the bill to $2,000. Most farms bring three or four horses.
Here as a favor to a friend, Bozan feeds and grooms the horses and performs all the "barn work," which is where the muck boots and a shovel come in handy.
"Above all, the animals have to be ready. They have to look good," said Bozan. "We make it all look good, like it's really easy."