David Faers previews Apassionata...

Fancy going to a horse show? A really great horse show? Not the most tempting come-on - unless, perhaps, you happen to be a fully paid-up member of the Barbour jacket and jodhpurs club.

But if someone suggests that you spend Saturday evening watching Apassionata at Birmingham's NEC on Saturday, then clear your diary and prepare yourself for a breathtaking programme of top-level entertainment.

Yes, there are horses - lots of them - and they do make up the backbone of this spectacular touring show which criss-crosses Europe from December to early June, taking in major cities from Budapest to Barcelona.

But this is a horse show and riding event like none you have ever seen before. Forget hardy annuals like the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Horse of the Year Show.

Ovations - the name attached to this year's tour by German-based Equiarte - is a very different beast, one that pushes buttons for all the senses.

There's the sight of top-class horsemanship, flashy costumes and clever lighting effects.

The sound of stirring music - everything from a throbbing techno beat to flamenco and the soaring operatic stylings of Icelandic singer Arndis Halla.

The smell of the sawdust, hardworking horse flesh and, it has to be said, pony poo, mixed up with the slightly acrid scent of stage smoke and other special effects.

You can even taste the sense of anticipation as one startling act after another appears from behind the billowing stage curtain, building up to a heady climax where one of the troupe's mighty stallions leaps on to an over-sized piano standing in the centre of the arena.

Yes, really, although it does have to be seen to be believed - just like the deathmasked Apocalyptic Riders who persuade their steeds to leap through rings of fire in a mystical four-footed dance that is both suspenseful and electrifying.

It's a show that starts on a high, with an unbridled horse galloping wild through the arena without a handler in sight and then takes the spellbound audience on a country-hopping journey that includes the misty Camargue with its snow-white wild horses and the stormy showmanship of the Cossacks to the sliding stops, circles and rough-riding rollbacks of wild west riding and the classical perfection of advanced dressage.

In the hands of lesser professionals, a heady mix like this could easily end up being a bit of a dog's dinner.

The fact that director Lorca Massine and his creative team manage to pull it off is a tribute to them and to the excellence of each and every performer - from the narrator and his locally-recruited children as they talk about the history of horses to Paul de Olivera, the last student of Cossack general Vladimar Trittkov and his team of stunt riders. Whatever they get paid, it's not enough.

Judging by the generous audience response at Apassionata's Copenhagen performance early in January, the performers and their impressive backstage operation are hitting a new high - one that appeals to animal-loving youngsters like Fay Holland, who travelled to Denmark from her home in Birmingham especially to see the show, as much as traditional horse lovers.

"Brilliant. I liked every bit of it," says seven-year-old Fay, who sat slightly open-mouthed and without a hint of the bum-shifting that accompanies the typical Disney movie these days.

"I really like the bit where the horse jumped through the fire and the funny man with the donkey. Can we go again?"

Apassionata is at the NEC, Birmingham, on Saturday, February 25, and Sunday February 26. The shows start at 3pm and 7pm on Saturday and 2.30pm on Sunday. www.bookingsdirect.co.uk; www.greatesthorses.co.uk ..SUPL: