You know how we sometimes discover niche game genres and just go “Huh, of course that’s a thing”? You might very well feel this way about the concept of horse games: video games where the primary mechanics are focused on riding, breeding, or taking care of horses.
The horse game genre has been around since the early 2000s, when the unexpected success of titles like The Legacy of Rosemond Hill, Mary King’s Riding Star, and My Horse Farm proved to kids’ games publishers that there was money to be made off of young girls who wanted to spend more time with horses than their real-life circumstances allowed them to.
What followed was a long list of knock-offs and copycats, cash grabs, and shovelware that only the most passionate and desperate horse fans would tolerate. And to every horse game enthusiast’s dismay, the genre has not really evolved from there. Join me — video game producer, hobby horse game critic, and creator of The Mane Quest — for a closer look at what Horse Girl Canon-worthy games are, what they are lacking, and how passionate gamers and creators are finding their own fun where the industry doesn’t provide for them.
What we get
When talking about this subject matter, we have to differentiate between “horse games” and “games with horses”. The latter category covers games like the Assassin’s Creed series, The Witcher 3, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
In these games, horses are primarily a mode of transportation. They can perhaps be customized or have some sort of bonding level and sometimes even come in different shapes or colors. And yet these horses very rarely feel like actual living beings, the ways of interacting with them beyond mounting and dismounting being incredibly limited.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is no doubt the AAA game with the most advanced horse mechanics. Its unlockable horse movements, petting and feeding interactions, and breed variety make many horse fans happy.
A true “horse game” doesn’t just feature horses as vehicles, but is focused on the animals and all you can do with them. These games exist. And they are almost universally awful.
With the exception of a few standouts like the MMORPG Star Stable Online, horse games are cheaply made and usually just flat-out horrible to play where tutorialization, user experience and gameplay balance are concerned. Though they are supposedly aimed at young children, they can be awfully finicky to control. All too often, the horses in them either use faulty asset packs that result in cringeworthy movement, or otherwise look like they have been modeled and animated with about as much reference footage as medieval drawings of rhinos and elephants.
Publishers invest in low-effort horse games like My Riding Stables (2018) because they know that — thanks to uninformed parents and lack of serious competition — they’ll make their money back. Very few players are willing to put up with the poor quality of options, and so those publishers assume that the target audience is small and can get no wider. On the rare occasion that independent teams create horse games as passion projects, they tend to suffer from a lack of accessibility, if not flat-out bad design, and are often mismanaged in one way or the other.
What We Want
In a well-made video game with horses, players could feast their eyes on how these beautiful creatures move and behave, all while riding through fields and forests, swamps and deserts. We could breed horses and train them without having to worry about real vet bills and the ethics of breeding for pretty colors; we could build up relationships with fictional horses and make them friends and companions, as we do with NPCs in Animal Crossing or The Sims; or we could manage a stable, upgrading tools and equipment, as in Minecraft or Terraria.
There is no one ideal horse game idea that could satisfy every horse gamer’s wants and needs, but there are instead a variety of concepts and genres that could thrive off some good horse-focused gameplay, from open world adventures like Breath of the Wild and Shadow of the Colossus, to homestead management life sims such as Stardew Valley.
For every young rider who has the opportunity to get into a saddle in real life, there are other horse fans who cannot live that dream due a lack of funds, urban living conditions, or even age and disability. For those without access to real horses — as well as for anyone who simply loves these animals and wants to spend additional time with them in the digital realm — horse games should be a wonderful opportunity.
But the market simply does not provide.
Where you have a lot of horse-loving gamers unsatisfied with what the market offers, you have horse-loving gamers who find their own horse games where there are none. Passionate equestrians end up modding, role-playing, and developing emergent gameplay.
Where Horse Gamers Find Their Fun
Emergent Gameplay: Red Dead Trail Rides
Red Dead Redemption 2 is known for its rich horse features and variety in breeds and coat colors. This fact has not escaped equestrian gamers, and I have seen countless people in my horse game communities admit that the horses were the main reason for them to buy the Western game.
And once equestrian gamers realized they were not alone in this, they started banding together for Trail Rides. Horse-loving players meet up in dedicated Facebook groups and Discord servers, exchange usernames and fill up entire servers with the sole purpose of peacefully riding their beloved horses across the map at a leisurely pace.
Defying RDO’s nature and reputation as a violent PvP game, Red Dead Trail Riders hang out to simply revel in the environment and spend time with other horses and riders, defending each other from other players if necessary and competing in races and rodeos.
Modder’s paradise: ARK, Skyrim, Minecraft
If a game has horses in it, you can assume that some passionate equestrians have started to build a community around playing with the horses, even if they’re not as fully featured as those in Red Dead.
Skyrim has mods for just about everything, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are plenty for horses, too. Minecraft modders have developed alternative horse shapes and genetically realistic breeding, while ARK Survival Evolved has an entire “EquestriARK” community.
Minecraft and ARK boast whole servers specifically catering to horse-focused gameplay, horse breeding and stable building — spaces where horse gamers can breed and ride their horses in peace, and roleplay to their heart’s content. In the Horses & Video Games group on Facebook, new users will regularly pop up to tell everyone that this or that game “can be played as a horse game.”
A world of its own: The Sims 3 pets
When The Sims 3 released its “Pets” expansion pack back in 2011, a huge community formed around the horses in it. And although its peak has passed, Equine Sims fandom is still going strong today. Custom content creators mod the game’s horses to incorporate far more detail and realism, improving everything from coat textures, mane and tail shapes, facial markings and body shape sliders, even adding in completely new custom poses for horse and rider. Fascinatingly, much of this content appears to be used primarily for image creation and role-playing rather than what would be considered regular “gameplay” in The Sims.
Sims players have created entire websites for fictional stud farms made up to look like real ones, with individual horses put up for sale or available for breeding, as well as dedicated role-play pages where players tell stories about what’s happening at their Sims-based stables.
Custom everything: Second Life
Second Life is not so much a game as a virtual world where just about everything is user-generated, and that applies to its horses as well. The creation and sale of models, animations, and functionality is a core part of the SL experience, and I know a handful of people who make a living exclusively off of selling lovingly made horse assets to other SL players. The range of available modifications once again spans everything from custom tack and stalls and riding arenas to a variety of different horse breeds, letting players play as horses or riders alike.
And thanks to the extensive customizability of Second Life, equestrian players can actually modify their horses to perform certain movements on custom commands, enabling the production of fascinating virtual horse shows where a dozen or more players get together to perform dressage and drill team routines with impeccable coordination.
Join the Horse Game Revolution
The incredible lengths players go to in order to create their own horse gameplay within non-horse games is inspiring and bittersweet at once. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see this creativity and resourcefulness; modding games is always a fantastic tool to enhance your experience. No doubt some of these communities would continue to exist and thrive even if we had such a thing as a well-made AAA horse game.
And yet you can’t help but wonder how many more people would love to engage in gameplay like this without the extra hassle of installing custom content. How many people would want to build up their stud farms and sell horses to other players, to train their jumper and dressage prospects and attend competitions, to invest their winnings into more horses and better equipment, but are hindered or turned off by the time investment and added complexity of installing a separate mod for each such feature? The potential for good horse games made by people who really care about this target audience is endless.
As an adult horse-loving gamer with a demand for quality horse games, the main problem is that publishers and investors don’t think players like me exist in big enough numbers to be worth catering to. In launching The Mane Quest and the communities surrounding it, I’m trying to prove that we do. And if you’re one of us, I can only recommend you come join our Facebook Group, Discord Server or Subreddit to commiserate what doesn’t exist and to celebrate those who try to do better.