UNCOVERED: Horse Riding as a Skill
UNCOVERED is a series of articles in which I look at aspects of real life horses that are not usually acknowledged by video game representations of horses.
Many games that feature horses divide their horses into different levels, or give them slightly different stats. You can have a faster or slower horse, or a horse with more stamina.
A few games such as the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feature bonding mechanics, where you gain more control over your horse if you put effort into it. In Breath of the Wild, the bonding is a very simple reaction game, where the horse walks in a different direction than you tell it to, and if you then soothe it in the right moment with a button prompt, you improve the horse’s trust in you.
What games usually fail to address is that riding a horse takes skill on the rider’s side beyond just “getting to know the animal”.
Horsemanship in Kingdom Come
One of the only games that I’ve actually seen include horse riding as a skill is Kingdom Come: Deliverance. In it, “Horsemanship” is a skill that improves as you use it, and its effect is that you can gallop longer and that your horse doesn’t shy as easily.
It’s pretty basic, but the ideas are relatively realistic: how easily spooked a horse is a question of the animal’s character and experience, but a skilled rider can do a better job keeping a shying horse under control.
Similarly, an skilled rider can better pace their horse’s gallop and can support its movements in a way a beginner can’t.
(Despite it getting this detail right, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not a game I feel comfortable recommending, all in all)
So, what is riding?
For a non-rider, it’s easy to assume that a) horse riding is just sitting on a horse, and b) horse riding is not exerting at all, because the horse is the one doing all the work.
Depending on the circumstances under which one mounts a horse, those assumptions are varying degrees of false.
Horse riding is a skill that takes years to properly learn. I’ve been taking weekly horse riding lessons for 18 years at this point, and I’m hardly an expert. I probably barely qualify as intermediate.
Riding experience and knowledge translates to how well you can communicate with your horse, to how precisely you can guide it. Naturally, this is a lot more relevant if your goal is to execute specific movements and paths rather than just go forward faster than you could walk.
What could games do?
Representing horse riding as a skill in any realistic way would be a very complex task for a game. Riding a horse means using your seat, legs and arms (called aids) for very deliberate commands. The more advanced a rider, the finer and less noticeable their communication with their horse will be to the amateur outside observer.
For now, I would already consider it a victory if role-playing games made a habit of adding horse riding as a skill similar to how Kingdom Come: Deliverance does it: with a few simplified advantages for more experienced riders.
Because representing all the subtleties of commanding a horse through weight, rein and leg aids is something that not even horse games have attempted to tackle before.