I need to feel useful," says actress Jill Ireland, 42, sounding suspiciously like a woman in transition. "As the kids get older, they go to school. I want to work—if it's something I enjoy. What I enjoy most is horses."

Considering that she's married to Hollywood macho man Charles Bronson, 58, one might assume Jill would have to trade husbands before horses. But with his full encouragement, she launched her new business with a lovely show this month on their 400-acre Vermont farm. "A lot of women like to spend money for clothes," says Jill, "but I like to go shopping for horses. I was a little clutchy about selling the nice ones for a while, but it's a business. I've sold all mine, and now I'm shopping again."

Not that Ireland is getting out of the other family business. She's already joined Bronson ("I know who the star is in this household," she says) in nine movies, including the current gangster flick Love and Bullets. She'd make a film herself if she got "any parts worth doing. But most of them are not," Jill finds. "I'd rather be sitting on a good horse than in a canvas chair waiting to say lines that don't fire me up."

To accommodate her inventory, she's gradually turned the family's 200-year-old spread into a working farm, complete with indoor riding ring and three full-time stablehands. Jealous of his privacy, Bronson at first resisted the idea of a public horse show, but finally gave in. "It's only for one day," he conceded. "I can always go into the woods and stay there. I may give an opinion, but I don't interfere."

So Ireland enlisted her two younger sons, by actor David (Man from U.N.C.L.E.) McCallum. Jason, 16, and Valentine, 15, painted the fences while bulldozers turned three backyard hills into an outdoor ring. Some of Jill's friends flew in from L.A., as did three of the prize mounts from her Malibu stable. More than 50 New England equestrians joined the competition.

Charles, the 11th of 15 children of a Russian immigrant coal miner, watched as guests arrived, albeit from afar. Jill, the daughter of an English wine importer, could not ride in her own show. But she cheered on one of her students, who took a blue ribbon, and served as announcer, nervously asking, "Was I okay? Is that how they do it?" She felt easier when Henri Van Schaik, a 1936 Dutch Olympic riding champion, proclaimed, "Very professional, Mrs. Bronson." Then came the biggest—if slightly ham-handed—compliment. "This isn't boring," said Bronson, "because if it was boring I wouldn't be here." He stayed the whole 10 hours.

Ireland reappeared for the post-show bash in a smashing white gown ("I told all the women not to change," she joked) and talked of having two shows next year—one a three-day extravaganza. Bronson seemed to scowl. "If he doesn't want it I won't do it," she said, before adding, "but I don't think he'll say no."