If your school days were anything like mine, chances are you came across a Horse Girl. Mine spent her break-times roaming the playground alone, and when you asked if she wanted to play with you, she’d respectfully shake her mane, rear her forelegs (read: arms), and gallop off across the asphalt, whinnying as she went. As you watched her go, you’d tilt your head and smile quizzically: sure, she was a bit weird, but you kind of admired her gumption anyway. If you don’t recall meeting anyone like this, she was probably you.
Just recently, Polygon committed this ancient oral tradition to the digital page with their ‘Horse Girl Canon’, which traces the main cultural influences surrounding the birth and growth of the Horse Girl archetype. We see media properties ranging from Anna Sewell’s seminal 1877 novel Black Beauty, to Dreamworks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), to Hasbro’s long-running line of My Little Pony playsets. But, though The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) is afforded a place in the canon due to its satisfying taming mechanics, there’s another core equine component of the Zelda franchise, absent from Breath of the Wild, that goes glaringly overlooked: Link’s trusty steed, Epona.
In Ocarina of Time, a young Link first meets Epona as a foal at Lon Lon Ranch, a hilled enclosure surrounded by the verdant plains of Hyrule Field. She’s skittish and shy, and only approaches Link when Malon, a girl whose father runs the ranch, teaches him to play ‘Epona’s Song’ on his ocarina. It’s a melody composed of a sleepy, clip-cloppity riff overlaid with Malon’s computerised vocals that becomes a recurring motif throughout the game, and when Link returns to the ranch as an adult, Epona (now a full-grown mare) recognises it still. After he’s beaten in a race, Ingo, the meanspirited farmhand-turned-owner, tries to trap Link and Epona within the ranch – but in quite possibly my favourite cutscene in gaming, the pair clear the fence together and tear across the downs to freedom.
Mechanically, Epona underpins a very basic user reward – a general increase in mobility, accessibility to hard-to-reach locations such as the broken bridge in Gerudo Valley, and a new form of saddle combat. Purely as a mode of transport horses aren’t uncommon, especially in large sandbox or open world games with endless ground to cover. While most Assassin’s Creed instalments allow you to whistle your mount to your side or hop up onto any one you come across, the Western-themed Red Dead Redemption 2 features a dizzying range of stats, controls, and equipment to customise your steed. Sometimes they don’t even have to be strictly horses – many of Horizon Zero Dawn’s post-apocalyptic machines do the same job, and all Aloy needs to do to commandeer them is ‘override’ their CPUs with her spear.
By contrast, Epona can’t be exchanged or modified; but equally, nor would you want her to be. There’s a cold necessity to the player-character’s interactions with the beasts of these other games: they feel somewhat interchangeable and replaceable, operating more as a tool to collect and exploit than a companion to journey with (RDR2’s rigidly procedural ‘Bonding Levels’ mean well yet always leave a sour taste in my mouth). But because Link moves between childhood and adulthood at will, his and Epona’s bond becomes one that transcends temporal boundaries, engendering an odd nostalgia – for both the past and the future – that is also triggered sonically. The epic yet intimate nature of their relationship carries all the markers of a classic Horse Girl narrative: the special, unspoken bond; the tyrannical, cruel owner; the daring escape from captivity. By virtue of Epona, Link is categorically a Horse Girl.
Going by Polygon’s definition, ‘defying the somewhat reductive, if serviceable, label, Horse Girls come in all genders.’ This may be true – Horse Boys are just as, if not more common in fiction – but as a cultural phenomenon, devotion to horses has traditionally been considered a poxy feminine pastime reserved for silly little girls fawning over ponies unless of course there’s a lot of money on the line. For example, male jockeys outnumber female jockeys 7 to 1, yet among adults who are light enough to work as jockeys, women outnumber men by at least 7 to 1. If horses are so girly then, what is a Horse Girl sub-narrative doing in such a conventionally masculine recreational activity – a video game? Alice Ruppert, author of The Mane Quest (an amazingly specific blog dedicated to analysing the intersections of gaming and equestrianism), defines this limbo as “a space that should not exist, or at least be tiny, according to broad societal expectations of which gender likes what“. Ocarina of Time straddles these worlds seamlessly, occupying and normalising that previously invisible, impossible space.
Soon the question stops being about whether Link is a Horse Girl, and more if the player is. Given the protagonist’s absolute silence throughout the franchise, often acute amnesia, and capacity to be named whatsoever the player desires (not to mention his relatively androgynous design compared with other male gaming heroes), Zelda titles are rarely about Link. They’re about you. Link serves as an all but blank slate onto which the player can project their wishes, wants, and desires. So when you engage with Epona – as Link, but by extension as yourself – it’s a step closer to really riding a horse.
In real life, horses are creatures inextricably tied to wealth: they’re expensive and time-consuming to care for, and at the very least need a sizable plot of land on which to be housed and exercised. They may be enduringly romantic symbols of strength and beauty, but, realistically, they can quickly become an immense financial burden. Here in the UK, the animals also remain staunch barometers of class – the women of the royal family are avid equestrians, and horse-based events like racing meets and polo matches carry a tangible air of exclusivity (Ascot’s Royal Enclosure acts as an archaic Elysium granting entry solely based on who you know or where you work).
As a result, horses represent a very unattainable ideal for a lot of children – for a lot of people – but one they long for nonetheless, because class and wealth divides don’t have to factor into our daydreams. Without the means to actually ride a horse, the Horse Girl’s power fantasy – what the canon defines as the ability to be strong and beautiful, both at once – stays a fantasy. But in lieu of the real thing, video games can still allow that fantasy to be lived out to an extent. Much like the gentle escapism, Animal Crossing brought us in the midst of the pandemic, interacting with Epona as Link can offer a unique kind of wish fulfilment to Horse Girls everywhere.
While, yes, Epona is just a pixelated horse, she’s also emblematic of all these very real socio-cultural issues. A reliable friend to whisk you across the vast meadowlands, her own story intertwined with yours. So if you find yourself picking up Ocarina of Time, or indeed Majora’s Mask or Twilight Princess any time soon (and what better time is there than on the eve of the franchise’s 35th anniversary?), don’t forget to hyah! that pony to your heart’s content. Respectfully, of course.