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Why I love Breath of the Wild’s horses

We’ve never had it so good

Simone de Rochefort has been producing & hosting YouTube videos for Polygon since 2016. She co-directed the upcoming documentary The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild let me live out my horse-taming fantasies.

Everyone has those, right?

As you creep up on a herd of horses in Breath of the Wild, you have to be patient and quiet. They’ll run if they spot you. The tension ratchets up as you get closer, hoping that you won’t move too quickly and give yourself away.

That tension explodes when you jump on a horse’s back. It starts bucking, trying to throw you off. Not all horses are built alike: Some are tamed almost instantly, while others fight you.

If you fail, you’re thrown, and the herd goes galloping off.

But if you succeed … suddenly you’re bareback on a beautiful, still-wild horse and the world opens up to you. Sprawling grasslands fly by under the horse’s hooves. It’s freedom.

Horse girls

I’ve thought a lot about why this gameplay loop feels so fantastic. In general, I love being able to have a horse in games, but Breath of the Wild felt above and beyond my wildest dreams. Or maybe on par with my wildest dreams, actually, since I’m a former horse girl.

The concept of the horse girl isn’t a new one — people have been theorizing about girls’ obsessions with horses at least since the early 20th century. In 2011, NPR spoke to Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, about girls and the token animals associated with them.

Orenstein said that girls like horses — and dolphins and unicorns — because “they’re all active, they’re all sources of power and motion and transformation.”

Link approaches wild horses on horseback in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Nintendo

It’s true that in Breath of the Wild, horses literally transform the gameplay. You have access to them after leaving the Great Plateau, which is essentially an extended tutorial area. Hyrule opens up to the player, and at the same time there is a new way to traverse it: a horse.

Mounted combat is also introduced with horses; the player becomes more powerful and more mobile.

Childhood fantasy

While the horse girl stereotype is certainly a powerful one, I don’t think the appeal of Breath of the Wild’s horses necessarily rests purely in the fact that I’m a girl who likes horses. Lots of people do, and the qualities we associate with horses — freedom, power and motion — are all recurring elements of Western adventure stories for children.

Consider how many popular horse stories revolve around a child befriending a powerful, special horse and then winning a big race. National Velvet or The Black Stallion might spring to mind. Maybe you thought of Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, in which a brother and sister dream of catching a famous mare called the Phantom.

Misty of Chincoteague’s cover, showing a foal with a white face and a brown spot over her eye. Rand McNally via Wikipedia

Many of these stories, especially the ones about wild horses, revolve around the fantasy of being the one person who can connect with a 2,000-pound speed machine. Stories like these (and related stories about children interacting with wild animals, such as My Side of the Mountain and Island of the Blue Dolphins) are romantic fantasies that spin on the pinhead of children’s innocence.

It’s rarely an adult who saves the injured wolf or frees the captured horse. It’s the child who can respect the animal’s autonomy while still ultimately becoming its friend. Adults in these stories are well-meaning at best, and villains at worst. In The Silver Stallion, a film that I watched repeatedly as a kid, the closest thing to a villain is a man who loves his dog but really wants to catch the titular horse. He pursues it so relentlessly that the horse runs off a cliff rather than let himself be caught.

The hero of the story is, of course, a young girl.

This is all to say that the process of taming horses in Breath of the Wild taps into a fantasy that most children raised on Western media are familiar with. It’s one of choosing the special-est, prettiest horse in the bunch, and making it your own.

It helps that in Breath of the Wild, not all horses automatically submit to your will. Even after a horse has accepted you on its back, it will still occasionally toss its head and rebel against your directions. You need to continually soothe a new horse — and over time, that horse will start to trust you.

A black horse looks at Link in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

This gradually deepening relationship prevents the horse from being reduced to a vehicle. The horses are also given animations that help them seem real. They’ll turn to watch you when you walk near them, and extend their heads toward you and whicker. It’s adorable.

All of these little details help make the horses in Breath of the Wild one of the most charming features of the game. The process of catching and taming them is both thoughtful, romantic and well-designed.

But you still can’t pet the dang dogs.

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