During my replay of Breath of the Wild, I really wanted to make an effort to be a better cowboy. I consider the game a masterpiece and Nintendo thought this masterpiece should have horses in it, so I’m stopping by the stables every hour or two. To get excited about wrangling more broncos, I've introduced a theme, naming three of my stallions after renowned composers — Beethoven, Bach, and Tár. Generally, I'm trying to engage with all the mechanics this systems-heavy game has to offer.
But, the more I try to become a horse boy, the more I have to conclude that it's a fundamentally flawed system. And I say that as a defender — nay, a fan — of the game's breakable weapons.
By far the biggest problem is that your horse can’t hear you if you go out of range — an area roughly equivalent to the minimap circle displayed at the screen's bottom right. So, if you decide to glide down from a mountain instead of attempting to coax your horse along a narrow, winding path, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to reach you when you land.
As a result, horse journeys are unpleasantly stop-and-start. You ride your horse, until you hear the tinkling piano notes of the main Zelda theme which only kicks in once you've been on horseback for a little while — and it feels like all is well in the world. Butthen you encounter an obstacle and need to hop out of the saddle and, just like that, you're horseless until you reach another stable.
It kinda sucks. All told, it isn't that big of a problem because Breath of the Wild’s world is exciting to explore on foot. Though there are wide open plains and prairies, Hyrule never feels empty. If you venture out on your own, you'll quickly find something interesting. So horses aren't necessary because the exploration is rewarding no matter how you do it. But the horse system is in the game. It seems like something you should be engaging with. It just doesn't work well enough to justify its inclusion.
Even if your horse always came when you called, the act of riding is often frustrating, too. The horses are hard to steer — especially when you've recently captured them — and can only run for a little while before they need a break. More frustrating, they frequently get hung up on small rises in elevation. So, if you guide your hard-to-steer horse slightly too far to the right or left of the path, you might get caught on a pebble that prevents you from continuing. Instead, you have to do the backwards-forwards-backwards-forwards dance until they're facing the path again or, even worse, hop off your steed and whistle for them to run to you.
Nintendo fixed all of this in BOTW’s second DLC, The Champion's Ballad, in which it introduced the Master Cycle Zero, a motorcycle Link can use to cover ground quickly and pull off sick stunts. The Master Cycle Zero can be summoned to your side using a Rune regardless of where you are on the map (provided you're not in the Gerudo Desert).
But, I only own the DLC for the Wii U copy of the game, so I am Master Cycle Zero-less unless I shell out for the expansion a second time. It kind of sucks to have that paywalled and, even if it wasn't, you can't access the Master Cycle until you've completed the main quest, anyway. It's a mechanic that Nintendo seemingly introduced to help players quickly mop up side content once they had finished the main game. That's fine, but it isn't really a replacement for horses. And horses need a replacement.
As we near the release of Breath of the Wild's long-gestating sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, I hope that Nintendo can manage to make the horse gameplay less painful and more pleasant. Better a carrot than a stick, right?
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