Posted on September 25 2018 by Sean Gadus
“…for there is no other feeling in the world to compare with it if one loves a great horse. It gives a thrill that nothing else ever can. It cannot be put into words, because words cannot express it.”
– Samuel Riddle
Relationships with animals are a key component of many human lives. Affection and loyalty are often important elements of animal/human bonds. An animal needs to be shown respect, love, and care for a true bond to be formed. Being a “companion”, whether human or animal, requires time, effort, and loyalty.
One of the most common definitions of a companion is as one half of a “pair of things intended to complement or match” the other. This definition may apply to several characters in Ocarina of Time, including Navi, Ruto, and Zelda herself, but it’s Epona, the fiery auburn steed, that truly completes the character of Link and serves as his most important companion.
Introductions are critical to all stories, and Ocarina of Time‘s title sequence is quite revealing to which companion it values the most. It’s Epona, not Navi or Zelda, who is featured in the game’s title sequence with Link. The 1998 masterpiece opens with the image and sound of Link and Epona riding across a quiet Hyrule Field. It’s a stunning image that serves as every player’s introduction to The Legend of Zelda in 3D. The moment you turn on the game, you are greeted with the image of a hero and his horse. The image of Link and Epona is so iconic that it was the central image on the game’s original Japanese box art, as well as being the key art for several versions of Ocarina of Time 3D.
Many fans, including myself, were itching to get a chance to ride Epona early in Ocarina of Time. But despite this yearning, the game withholds the opportunity to do so from the player for a significant portion of the game. Instead of giving the player the ability to ride Epona as a child, a feature that would later be implemented in Majora’s Mask, we are at first only allowed minor interactions with Epona at Lon Lon Ranch. In this completely optional sequence, the player can meet Malon, Epona’s young owner, and be officially introduced to the free spirited foal. Malon calls Epona “friend” making the horse special in the minds of the player. Epona’s not just any old animal, she’s important to Malon in a significant way, and that leads the player to put special emphasis on her as well.
The young Epona, visually distinguished with her deep auburn colored hair, flees from the player when you approach. It’s not until you learn a special song, “Epona’s Song”, that the young horse trusts you enough to approach more closely, a moment where you become a “friend” to Epona in the same way as Malon. Much like a real life experience with a person or animal, Epona is shy and skittish until Link earns her trust by learning the melody associated with Malon and her late mother. This bonding experience is crucial to Epona’s story, as well as to the player’s ability to ride the horse.
When Link awakes after his seven years of sleep, Lon Lon Ranch has changed for the worse, much like the rest of Hyrule. The cowardly Ingo has taken over the farm, forcing Malon and Talon out of their home and promising Epona to Gannondorf. Ingo has spent years struggling to tame the wild Epona, but since he has not bonded with the animal, he fails. When Link returns to the ranch, he is made to pay the miser Ingo a set of Rupees in order to ride different horses. But we all know which steed our hero is looking for. If the player plays “Epona’s Song”, he or she is able to remind the horse of their prior friendship/bond. The bonding experience that we previously experienced with Epona allows the animal to trust the player, despite the years that have passed. It’s an example of how brilliant Ocarina of Time‘s time jump/manipulation can be when it works.
From this point, Link plays the role of a western hero. (It’s important to note that creator Shigeru Miyamoto has previously expressed his love for Western tropes like horse-riding.) In this sequence that could fit in a John Wayne or Gary Cooper western, the duo of Link and Epona work together to thwart Ingo’s scheme and win Epona’s freedom by beating him in several high stakes horse races. Enraged, Ingo locks the pair up in Lon Lon Ranch, hoping to make Link admit defeat. Undeterred, Link is able to escape in an iconic cutscene pulled straight from a Western film, with Epona leaping a high fence to freedom. It’s a story moment with special significance, which is highlighted with a cutscene, as well as an original musical fanfare that plays as our beloved horse rears onto her hind legs in victory.
This entire sequence in Ocarina of Time, from meeting Epona, to freeing her, is entirely optional. For me, this is what makes Epona your true companion. Unlike a character like Navi, who you are saddled with (pun unintended), regardless of your interest in or feeling for the character, it is entirely up to the player to pursue this bond with Epona. It’s Ocarina of Time‘s best side quest because it has significant emotional and gameplay investment. Thematically, it’s an intimate experience, with the only things at risk are a ranch’s ownership and a horse’s future. Additionally, Link is able to be a hero by standing up to a bully, which is another classic western film trope.
Epona is a fitting tribute and prize for the emotional and exciting side quest that spans seven years and requires you to overcome multiple obstacles across that time period. Epona may not be useful to the main story, but the horse opens up new mechanics (Horse Archery), mini games (Lon Lon’s Horse Race and the Gerudo Archery Course), and side quests (Poe Hunting in Hyrule Field). Epona even allows you to reach Gerudo Valley early, with another epic cutscene that was personally requested by Miyamoto.
Beyond the story and gameplay rewards, Epona truly helps the player capture that “Romantic” feeling, an expression of emotion and imagination, that is eternally promised in Ocarina of Time‘s Title Sequence. This feeling is so often captured in the endings of great western films and is fittingly embodied in the relationship between Link and Epona: there’s always another grand adventure just waiting for you around the corner, all you have to do is ride towards it.
Sean Gadus is an Associate Editor at Zelda Dungeon. He loves playing video games, reading books, watching movies and geeking out about all things Star Wars, Batman, and Harry Potter. His first Zelda game was Ocarina of Time.