June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

AMONG THE COUNTRY CROCKERY AND KNICKKNACKS in Clea Newman’s tidy white kitchen are a box of Newman’s Own butter-flavored popcorn and a bottle of Newman’s Own Caesar-style salad dressing. “Of course I use them,” says Newman, 32, the youngest child of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. “I have to support the cause.” Beyond the condiments, some family photos and the ice-blue eyes the 5’2″ blonde shares with her father, Newman’s three-bedroom Colonial-style home in Westport, Conn., is no shrine to her starry lineage. Instead, horses—drawings, paintings, photos, magnets—are everywhere. “Animals are wonderful,” she says. “To them I’m not the daughter of anyone famous. I’m Clea.”

For Newman, a competitive equestrian since her teens, riding is more than an escape. Newman is the director of development at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding, a Darien, Conn.-based nonprofit organization that helps disabled children and adults progress physically, by boosting their balance and posture, and emotionally, by giving them control over a horse in an open environment. “If you are at a hospital and you don’t understand why you’re in pain, it can be a tough place,” she says.

Animals have been as much a part of Newman’s life as movie premieres and popping flashbulbs. Growing up with two older sisters, two half sisters and a half brother, Newman, who moved often due to her parents’ career demands, once shared a Connecticut household with 15 dogs, 8 cats, 2 peregrine falcons, a skunk named Pepe, a weasel named Dean and a pet chicken named Dorothy. But it was the horseback-riding lessons she got for her sixth birthday that changed her life. “I’d stay for 8, 9, 10 hours, just hanging out with the horses,” she says. At 13, she started on the elite equestrian circuit. Her parents ferried her to competition warm-ups at 3 a.m., but, she says, “they never put pressure on me.” Training with U.S. Equestrian Team coach George Morris while at boarding school in Princeton, N.J., Newman sought relief from the strict regimen by partying hard at nightclubs like Regine’s in Manhattan—sometimes even competing with a hangover. “My trainers used to look at me and say, ‘I can’t believe you won,’ ” she says. Offers sister Nell, 38: “If you want to win, you can’t be burned out. So whatever she was doing, she really maintained herself.”

One thing she was doing was dating. At Washington’s American University, “I started majoring in political science and international relations,” she says. “My father used to call it international relationships!” She transferred to New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, graduating in 1990 with her mother—who received a fine arts degree—as her father delivered the commencement address.

Newman says her college years were “the messy part of my life.” In 1989 she broke her engagement to department-store heir Marshall Field VI five weeks before the wedding date. “I wasn’t ready to settle down,” she says. “I rebelled in a pretty ugly way.”

A year after college, Newman moved back into her parents’ Connecticut pool-house, working for her father’s charities—until, she says, “my dad was like, ‘Honey we love you, but it’s time for you to get out.’ ” She heard about Pegasus in 1994. Recalls her mother: “She called home and said, ‘You won’t believe the job I’ve got!’ ” Adds Clea, who bought her house a few months after signing on: “Pegasus was exactly the perfect organization for me.” As it is for many of Pegasus’s 200 riders. Says Lauren Wheaton, whose daughter Nicole, 4, has cerebral palsy: “The program has seen her go from a child who had to be carried everywhere to trusting a walker to asking for a walker.”

Newman, who is now working to help Pegasus start its 14th program, in New York City, is particularly close to sisters Melissa, 35, an artist in Connecticut, and Nell, who runs Newman’s Own Organics in Santa Cruz, Calif. And she still enjoys watching her parents’ movies—most of them. At age 3 or 4, she says, she sat in front of her dad at a screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Terrified at the movie’s end, when Newman and Robert Red-ford face a hail of bullets, she turned to find her father gone. “He had snuck out before the press came in, and I thought he died,” she recalls. “I was hysterical. To this day I can’t watch that film.” And to this day she reveres her parents. “Everyone always says to me, ‘You’re such a perfect cross between the two of them.’ I think that’s just about the nicest thing a person can say.”

SAMANTHA MILLER

CYNTHIA WANG in Westport

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