Setting a new standard.
Video games have a tendency to uses horses as if they were cars. Sure, they whinny and make little clopping noises while they go, but they are really just another way to get from point A to point B. Take Skyrim for example, the horses in that game moved as if they were a boulder with hooves and could scale mountains as long as you kicked them enough and wedged them into corners.
Other more recent games like The Witcher III or Metal Gear Solid V include better looking animations for horses that take a decent stab at mimicking the way they move, but essentially they are just vehicles that gallop along without any sort of acknowledgement that Geralt and Snake are sitting on an actual animal, one that could react to situations other than just rearing when you run then directly into a wall. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is treating horses just as they are, an animal that won’t just be a perfectly trained trail horse the second you happen to jump on its back.
In Breath of the Wild you can encounter a variety of different horses across the hugely expansive map. By sneaking up and jumping onto their backs, you can spam L to sooth them, which hopefully will tame them enough assuming you have enough stamina. Although in real life it takes a bit more to desensitize a horse before you jump on its back, Breath of the Wild includes a feature in training your horse that makes them more lifelike and believable than any other title that uses them.
In the world of horseback riding, a training technique called “ask, tell, demand” is used to reward good behavior and correct the bad behavior. It’s really as simple as asking a horse to complete a task, such as turning, stopping, speeding up, etc, and if they refuse, you increase the use of your aids (legs, seat, crop) to a degree where you are much more direct about what you want them to do, i.e. tell them to do it. If the horse still negatively responds, you demand the action by expressing your dominance in the relationship by using extremity direct aids both verbal, physical, and artificial. Most well trained horses will complete tasks when either asked, or told to do so. Demanding a task of your horse usually occurs during the preliminary training period when they are considered “green,” and need a firmer hand to understand what is being asked of them. If at any point during the ask, tell, demand exchanges the horse does what is asked, they are immediately rewarded with either praise (a pat on the neck, verbal conformation “good boy!”) or by a relaxation of the aids.
Breath of the Wild incorporates this method of training by allowing Link to praise a horse whenever they complete a task that he deems correct with a swift pat on the neck. When you first starting riding a wild horse, they will refuse to do certain tasks or behave incorrectly, because who could blame them! One second they were chilling with their herd eating grass and the next an elf in a tunic jumps on their back and starts pointing you towards Death Mountain.
When the horse doesn’t listen to what Link asks of them, it can then be told, and eventually demanded until the horse completes the task requested. For example, some wilder horses will slow down if unprompted, turn the wrong direction, won’t fully come to a halt, or do a much wider turn then asked. These kind of behaviors are usually accompanied with an animation of the horse throwing its head up in protest, or adjusting its stride so it moves awkwardly and crooked. When Link immediately corrects this behavior, he uses L to soothe, and if done correctly some pink sparkles with appear over the horse’s head. This simply means the horse learned something, and will retain that information and work upon it the longer you ride and bond with it.
This means that the longer you ride your horse, the more if will adjust to your riding style and react quickly to what you are asking of it. For example, when I was first training my horse, I noticed when I whistled it would run towards me, but stop after it reached a certain distance if I kept running. By hopping on while running alongside it and kicking immediately, the horse would attempt to follow my forward motion, and a quick pat told me it had learned something due to the sparkles arising over its head. By doing this a few times and praising it when done correctly, my horse now knows to run alongside me when I whistle so I can hop on fluidly and continue in a canter without a pause in motion. This trick has gotten me out of some sticky situations so far, and it was taught just as one would teach a real horse a favorable action.
If there was one title to rival Breath of the Wild’s use of horses, it would be Rockstar’s Wild West, open-world title Red Dead Redemption. Since John Marston and Link are both in the same boat of having to explore expansive worlds with just horses at their disposal, care was obviously taken into the design and implementation of the animals. After all, a majority of the game is spent on their backs. Both in Red Dead and Breath of the Wild, if a horse is unpromted while following a groomed trail or road, it will continue on that route without the need for direction, just as they do in real life. In both games, the horses also move quite realistically, although the horses in Red Dead were much more susceptible to glitches and had fewer animations for actions besides rearing or spooking when compared to Breath of the Wild.
Speaking of spooking, a lot of people not familiar with horses will forget that they are prey animals and react to situations with either a flight or flight response, and they will almost always choose the latter. In Breath of the Wild, the horses react accordingly to you rushing into a hoard of enemies, and will usually ditch you to seek refuge at a safer distance because again, who could blame them? If a horse does find itself stuck between enemies without Link on its back, it will kick out in the hopes to create an opening and escape. This is exactly how normal horses would react; usually the only time they use the fight response is when flight is in no way available to them. Not like those Skyrim horses, who run up to Dragons like they are the Dragonborn themselves.
There’s also so many minor details that take the horses in Breath of the Wild over the top. Besides the fact they looks amazing with Breath of the Wild’s memorable art-style and their movement is extremely fluid and believable, Link will grab a small patch of mane and extend one hand out for balance as one should while riding bareback, horses travel slower uphill and faster downhill, Link has a good riding position with his shoulder making a straight line all the way to his heel, and so many other details that shows Nintendo did their research when it came to horsemanship. Breath of the Wild is also quick to remind players that if you sneak up on a horse while directly behind it, you will get kicked in the face, and maybe you kind of deserve it.
One final argument to Breath of the Wild’s expert use of horses is that they are complimented by the world that the game crafts around them. Since Link can only fast travel to shrine locations he has already completed, exploration and discovery become two main reasons this game is such a fresh and addictive entry into the series. With huge grass fields separating towns, shrines, and your next big discovery that right now is just a small dot on the horizon, horses make that journey a pleasant experience and feel crucial to traversing the world at the perfect pace. They don’t feel like an afterthought, but instead a thread that connects all the best aspects of Breath of the Wild together into one explorative experience. By combining this inherent need for their use with a sophisticated AI system and expert execution in their appearance and movement, Breath of the Wild has set a new standard to how horses should be used in video games.