When I think about heroes on horseback, I picture the likes of Harry Hamlin in Clash of the Titans, the Lone Ranger (or his doppelganger, Zorro), and the brave Prince Phillip in Sleeping Beauty. These are the brave heroes I thought of when I thought of a perilous time before cars, that is, until I met a young girl by the name of Malon and her trusty foal named Epona.
Not long after the first dungeon and the death of the great Deku tree in Ocarina of Time, you find yourself at Hyrule Castle bumping into a young girl named Malon. That very same night you find yourself waking up her elderly, narcoleptic father Talon. He is grateful and offers you an invite to his ranch in the very center of Hyrule Field before scurrying off to receive a much deserved reaming from his child. The next day marks a moment that still brings a smile to my face and truly is an iconic moment in the series.
Your first meeting with the fated horse is typical of a strange boy meeting a young and standoffish animal; she runs off immediately. You soon learn that the way to the light draft (or possibly a Trakehner) horse’s heart is through song. Malon explains this and teaches you your third song of the adventure apply name “Epona’s Song.” Once she hears this tune erupt from your Fairy Ocarina, she trots toward you for a loving nudge, but, alas, this is the last you’ll see of the steed for seven long years.
Much later, after Link’s adolescence is lost and Hyrule has become a torrid wasteland, you are reunited with the now saddled and imprisoned Epona. His captor is the “great” Ingo: once a loyal employee of Lon Lon Ranch, now a tainted servant of Ganondorf. Lucky for the boy and his horse, Ingo has a severe and elevated gambling problem. After much coercion and cheating (thank you, magic carrots), Epona jumps over the towering wall surrounding the ranch.
For me personally, the most familiar scene with Epona is when she is vital to me retrieving a completely optional item. I can recall in my childhood riding Epona all around Hyrule, retrieving ingredients to make eyedrops for the visually-impaired Biggoron. After much trial and error, I eventually find myself using my ocarina six times before finally being gifted with the great Biggoron Sword, a truly great moment in history.
Finally, for the first time in this adventure, I felt complete and ready to fight anything. Boosting Epona with carrots added to her speed and height at which she could jump. This felt like a more realistic improvement over the Pegasus boots found in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening. It felt as if the series was maturing with me as we both got older and that is truly one of the things that makes the series so great.
Epona really only has two co-starring roles in the Zelda series. The second is in a dark, Twili-shadowed adventure called Twilight Princess. In this installment, you have nearly no wait in meeting this muscular version of the full draft horse; if there were opening credits, she’d be the second name. However, this time it will take a heck of a lot more than a whistling song to tame the beast. Not far into the adventure, you must “break” Epona after she’s spent too much time in the wild: a true testament to how the series has evolved with time. Once she becomes your full-time partner, the true test of her abilities begins.
Despite fellow Ordonian Ilia’s attempt to keep you two apart, you are reunited in Kakariko Village and soon thrown into a jousting battle on the Bridge of Eldin with the warthog-riding Bulbin King. This challenge introduced us to just how precise Epona’s steering had improved since the tank-like turns of Ocarina of Time, jerking to the side as you swing your blade at the gruesome leader of the Bulbo-riding army.
For the majority of your adventure in this installment, this new beefier Epona feels like a vast improvement over the lean, agile one of the past. However, in a substantial turning point in Twilight Princess, Epona becomes a savior of multiple races as she aids you in your defense of a covered wagon that transports the dying heir to the Zora clan. You may be riding her, but she is in fact the one that gets the credit in this battle thanks to her spectacular maneuvering skills against Bulbins and Kargaroks alike.
Epona’s role in this adventure isn’t limited to trotting steadily as you snipe a monster or tromping over archers that get in the way. Epona has her own part to play in battle of good versus evil, even up until the final moments with Ganondorf. After a tiring couple of battles by lonesome, Link finds himself atop Epona with Princess Zelda seated behind him. Only after many laps around Hyrule Field, whipping Epona to go faster as they chase down Ganondorf’s black steed, the ultimate power couple is able to dismount the recently released Ganondorf for the final battle.
When you look at the multiple versions of the horse, you see that they are alike in only minuscule ways, much like certain versions of Link himself. Yes, he uses a sword, bombs, and arrows, but not always in the same manner. Sometimes he’s a southpaw but not always. Sometimes he a short kid with vibrant expression and other times a stoic, reserved warrior. Epona’s the same way, with her calm eyes and protective aura in your first meeting to her strong build and stubborn angst in the most recent.
For many fans of the series, there has only been two instances where Epona has been a significant piece: the two we discussed. In the opening of Majora’s Mask, Epona is seen for only a moment as the child-timeline Link rides her through a forest before being ambushed. This specific Epona is in fact the same horse for Ocarina of Time, just younger and less battle-seasoned. At first, you assume she’s dead because of what the Skull Kid says, but later you are reunited with a younger replica of the horse you rescued from Ingo shortly after the Snowhead Temple. The quick-footed horse would make an appearance in a racing level in Four Swords Adventures or rather, four appearances depending on how you look at it. Malon’s horse also made a surprise cameo in The Minish Cap as a milk-delivering horse, a moment that sparked a smile across my face; “I know her!”
The act of riding Epona efficiently has evolved through the years as well. Nintendo was smart enough to make Epona much bigger and more muscular in Twilight Princess since that is what’s needed for a horse to carry a man with some many heavy objects on his person. They also adapted to reality in the way that you “motivate” her to go faster. They went from carrots to a simple whipping of the horse, as mildly cruel as that is, because eventually the gamer would wonder where all these root vegetables are coming from.
In 2014, we got our first glimpse of Link riding a horse in nearly a decade, but is that Epona? Upon first sight, one can only assume it’s Link’s iconic horse because it would just be rude to exclude her in this installment. Little by little, we learn more about the newest adventure named The Breath of the Wild. Amazing realism is being imagined with this installment such as building weapons, gathering supplies, and even cooking a meal. If all this takes place in Hyrule now, what is to become of our beastly companion(s)?
I wager a guess that Epona will not be the only horse or maybe not even the only rideable animal. Perhaps you’ll encounter many horses on your journeys through fields, forests, and temples. We may witness a dead four-legged friend or two along the way. They could also go the route of Final Fantasy and allow us to build stables for breeding and training.
Once we have an acceptable horse, what then? Skyward Sword had a mini game in which you would play the harp as accurately as possible, so why not a sidequest in which Epona engages in dressage or obedience training to make her a more precise mare. Breath of the Wild is no doubt going to be a significant turning point in the series, so it’s only fitting that Epona goes through a drastic change as well. I could personally spend hours just riding Epona, learning new skills, and cruising the fields of the largest Zelda adventure yet.
An interesting improvement to Epona could perhaps have an RPG element to it, like upgrades or added skills. It could add a whole new aspect to the adventure if she could learn to kick your foes, whinny to scare away smaller animals that try to steal rupees or ingredients, and maybe even comfort an injured Link for a minuscule recover in health.
One for work and one for play
When you thoroughly analyze Epona in her many appearances, it becomes rather apparent that Nintendo did their homework in deciding which breeds to use. For Ocarina of Time they opted for the playful, swanky, and short-statured Trakehner while Twilight Princess went with the powerful, all-business, ruffian draft horse (most likely a Shire). With a difference in height of nearly a foot and over a half a ton of muscle, they fit their respective Link’s perfectly.
On the other hand, in each instance, Nintendo either didn’t utilize all they could have done or took a few liberties that they should not have. In the case of the Trakehner, they could have implemented her as more of a centerpiece of the story considering that particular breed is among the smartest and most loyal of all show horses. On the other side of the mirror is the Shire, who is only ridden after a long effort as these horses absolutely despise being ridden unless properly broken, which would take much longer than just a few button presses.
As a whole, I feel that Epona has become an extension of Link. She feels so much more than just another weapon at his disposal and more than a partner too. For me, Epona feels less like a pet and more like an extension of Link’s soul and possibly feeding off of the triforce of courage as well. It seems, in some adventures, that Link would fail rather quickly without the help of his four-legged partner and for that he owes his gratitude. I look forward to see what Nintendo does for the future of Epona.