My Riding Stables: Life With Horses — So close to decent, so far from good.
UPDATE: The article below is about a 2008 game that was released on Wii, and re-released on Steam in 2014. For a review of the 2018 game of the same name on Switch & PS4 (and for an overview of the different versions), see here.
Riding Stables: My Life With Horses is a frustrating game in many ways. The UI and controls are unintuitive, most movement is slower than you’d like it to be and the graphics look a lot like the game came out 10 years earlier than it actually did.
But what I found the most frustrating thing about Riding Stables is how close it got to being actually a really decent horse game and then ruined it by making a handful of relatively easily avoidable mistakes.
So close and yet so far
In terms of core game mechanics, Riding Stables has many things that I would imagine my ideal horse game to have: There is a day cycle, with time passing to make the player choose which tasks to prioritize and which to do tomorrow. There is an aspect of economy, in the sense that feed and equipment for your horses and upgrades for your yard cost money, which you earn by training young horses for your clients or having guests at your stables.
You train your horse by riding in the fields, every obstacle you jump slightly increasing their jumping skills until you’re good enough to qualify for the next obstacle race.
New days and progress bring short and long term objectives that guide you in what to do next without actually forcing a specific order of things on you. The quest system is basic, but it did its job in guiding me what to pursue next.
In essence, a lot of the staples of what I like in the genre of horse-themed farm management games are there and functional. In theory, listing all these features sounds like it would make (or could make) for a pretty cool game.
Unfortunately, it’s execution and polish where the concept falls apart.
Interface and Controls
The entire user interface just looks very, very rough. There are awkward color combinations, bad spacing of texts and other elements, sliders where exact values should be. Riding Stables has a handful of problems, but I’d consider the 2D assets one of the worst and one of the most easily solved. The entire setup looks like placeholders.
The control scheme is functional, but all over the place. You use WASD or the mouse for walking, the mouse or the spacebar to interact with something nearby, you need the arrow keys for many of the grooming minigames, and lunging and riding are controlled by mouse alone.
To earn money, you can participate in obstacle races, or you train foals for clients or massage their horses, once you’ve unlocked the relevant buildings with your first hard-earned credits.
The game tells you early on that you can have “guests” at your yard, but after about 4 hours of playing I only just got permission to upgrade my Guest House, the credits for which will likely take another five ingame-days to accumulate.
You have to feed horses, groom them, pick their hooves and muck out their stalls. The game lets me buy vaccines and medicines in the shop, so I assume horses can get sick as well. The cleaning and hoofpicking minigames work well enough in both realism and mechanics, but both quickly grow too tedious and frequent to actually be enjoyable.
Realism and Quality
My Riding Stables: Life With Horses may not be a particularly pretty game, but the horses themselves are not the problem. Their animations are basic, but the horse’s movements look natural – except for the foals’ walk animation, where the wrong two feet are lifted at the same time.
And speaking of those foals and realism: I’m not actually sure how realistic it is to do lunge training with foals as young as these. I found conflicting results in my research: while nobody should ride a horse that isn’t fully grown yet, certain exercises of obedience can start at a much younger age than I had originally thought. And once you figure out how the foal training works, I actually found a moderate amount of enjoyable challenge in it.
One of the aspects that most loudly shouts “low budget” is the sound design: the one music track that plays in your yard gets old really quick, and the handful of voiced lines in the game stand out awkwardly as too loud and out of place.
Beyond that, the game’s primary problem in terms of visuals is trying to go for a realistic art style but clearly not having the budget for it. The result is a compromise that must have looked a decade out of date even at its release in 2014.
Your horse’s jumping skill – which you need in order to qualify for races – increases by finding obstacles in the open riding areas and jumping over them. What I really like is that My Riding Stables: Life With Horses does not give you a “jump” button, as many horse games do: instead, the challenge in getting a horse over an obstacle lies in approaching the jump in a straight line and at the right speed, which is a more realistic implementation. What isn’t quite realistic is that the “right” way to get over the obstacles in the game is at the fastest speed you have available, whereas an important part of real life horse jumping is collecting the horse and controlling the exact strides.
The riding and training works alright from a gameplay perspective, at least when you’re doing it for the first few times. But after I bought my second horse, I quickly realized that there’s not much point in training that one too, since there’s little reward in the training itself, and going back to the old races is rather boring.
The new environments that you eventually unlock are nice, but since jumping obstacles and participating in races are the only actually interactive things in them, there is little point or joy in simply going out for a ride. The races themselves can be accessed in an “instant mode” from the main menu, which is nice if you want to see them quickly, but also cheapens the experience of unlocking them through gameplay.
After the roughly 4 hours I’ve played, I own two horses and have only just unlocked the second of three riding areas. I have not unlocked horse breeding yet and don’t yet know how the guest house works.
Beyond a certain desire to know what the game offers in order to give it a fair review however, I couldn’t find much motivation to keep playing. There is just too much tedium and too little actual reward or challenge.
My Riding Stables: Life with Horses is not a good game, and it definitely isn’t a pretty one. Unfortunately, as far as decent horse stable management simulations go, the bar to be among the better ones is very low.
At the very least, I found enough to like about the game to be interested in its upcoming sequel.
My Riding Stables: Life With Horses was released on Steam in March 2014. A sequel has been announced for November 2018. Versions for Nintendo Switch and PS4 were also announced for 2018, but strangely, those have the first game’s name with the second game’s visuals. It’s very confusing.