For those who never grew up as a gamer girl in the early 2000s or more specifically, an animal loving gamer girl, its likely you didn't get the experience the slew of games directed at these kinds of kids. While no longer a girl, I was raised one, and I loved animals. But at that time, the most you could get in the way of animal games were usually... horse games. The horse girl crowd was big, and it was much more marketable than say, a game where you play as a dog or a cat. I remember always seeing loads of horse media- whether it was books, movie, or video games. I didn't want that, personally. But it was the best thing I could get in terms of being an animal in a game, so I ended up playing quite of few of these kinds of shovelware horse games.
While many have been lost to my memory, if you've followed my video game adventures before, specifically my speedruns- you'd know I have played a few of the Barbie horse adventure games. These were ones I grew up with, and reconnecting with them in the last years was mostly out of nostalgia and curiosity. While I may not be a horse girl, I love old media- especially video games. Even more, I love ones that arent widely covered online... obscure games that slip through the cracks. Surprisingly, Barbie games do fall into that category, perhaps out of the assumption they are a big name and much be documented, or just the fact that most gamers don't have interest in a brand like Barbie.
But this article isn't about the Barbie games. In fact, I found myself more and more intrigued by other horse games when I got into speedruning Barbie games. I love digging up information, and had fallen into bit of a rabbit hole with series like Star Stable, after finding out the developers of Barbie Horse Adventures Riding Camp made that series too- which becomes obvious with its many similarities to the non-MMO Star Stable games. Plus, with incredibly massive library of medicore horse games spawning in the early 2000s, I knew there must be more in there worth seeing. Even if the games were shitty, the history could bring something interesting. I had always had these memories of a horse game I played, and I had yet to find it. So it seemed like a great chance to go hunting for the mystery game in my memory.
While scouring the internet for videos and clips of the game that fit my description, I came across a youtube channel that is full of playthroughs for horse games. With hundreds of videos, I began to look through their playlists in hopes of finding a game I recognized, or just something interesting.
Thats when I stumbled across a game that piqued my interest- The Saddle Club: Willowbrook Stables. Unlike most horse games I had seen, this one seemed to actually be following a story, and wasn't locked into a horse stable of Equestrian center of some kind- it was an open world map. So out of curiosity, I went to download the game and see what was up with it. Even if it ended up being crappy, I was already curious by the slightly different angle it had from most horse games.
The Saddle Club: Willowbrook Stables came out in 2002, and is based around the tv show and book series also called The Saddle Club. The show was Australian-canadian and aired from 2001 to 2009. This is not a show I ever watched, but I recall the covers of the books in my elementary school library. The series follows three main characters also present at the start of the game, but the game takes place in a completely unique location from anything in the series. This is a point I'll come back to later...
As I stated, the game is a bit different from most horse games at the time- many horse games were heavily focused on caring for the horse and the stables, while focusing on competitions and other equestrian activities. Most times even the game if open world, doesn't have much to do outside of races and world is hardly the focus. Even a series like Star Stable still have a good amount of focus on typical equestrian lifestyle outside of its magical plotline. But Willowbrook stables is basically an open
world mystery scavenger hunt, with some relation to horses.
The game starts with a opening cutscene, where the three main girls receive a letter to go off to a island horse stable. Only one can go, which means that you can to pick which girl you want to play as. You find out from the owner Agnes, that a property developer is going to buy the island and get rid of the stables. You learn that if you can raise enough money, you can save the stables from being bought. After exploring the islands, you learn from Agnes that there are rumors of “golden horse shoes” that she read in a journal, and that finding them may be the way to get money to buy the land. From here, the game will lead you on a quest to find four golden horse shoes, by handing you hints through characters and needing to solve puzzles and riddles to find out where they are.
Aside from the story, the game takes place on a pretty large open world map where you can run into various landmarks, locations, and NPCs. The world has a subtle day-night cycle, in that it will become sunset and characters will start to go inside. You can then pass the day by sleeping in your bed, and this is sometimes required for progression. You do also get to care for your horse by putting on tack and cleaning the stables- but cleaning the stables seems optional. While you get notified when to do so, I never had an issue just ignoring it. There are “points” given or lost for this (and various other things) but I don't recall it ever being an problem during the game, they don't do anything.
So with that described, lets step back and look at the game again. Its a pretty unique game for a game apparently based off a tv show. It has a pretty large open world, with a totally unique original setting... but, a little extra digging would reveal that this game isn't really supposed to be for the Saddle Club. This game was made by IR Gurus Interactive, who had made a few other horse games before this one. Specifically, the far less talked of source of Saddle Club Willowbrook Stables... Willowbrook Stables "Search for the golden horse shoes".
If you're familiar with horse games of the early 2000s or late 90s, you may be familiar with other works of IR Gurus without realizing it... this includes the well known Equestriad. The Saddle Club release of Willowbrook stables certainly outshined its original version, and its not uncommon at all for games to be repackaged with a more well known brand name- for example, a series I grew up became notorious for this after being acquired by Ubisoft, Petz. Many Petz titles that looked incredibly different were repackaged games from other countries, bought by Ubisoft and given the Petz title in order to be recognized in the US and thus sell better.
But this case is a bit more... weird to me, in the fact that IR Gurus released the original only a year prior, and it wasn't due to the game being released in a different country where said brand would have been more recognizable. They are an Australian company and have released horse games in the Australian horse scene- Saddle Club as mention is also an Australian show. So it seems that the re-release of Willowbrook as a Saddle Club title was more like a good money opportunity for IR Gurus and the owners of Saddle Club. Just fix up a game you already made, it'll be far cheaper. Everyone benefits and if anything it probably did better than the original release anyways due to the Saddle Club name being slapped on!
But aside from the listings that prove these are two seperate games, there is loads of evidence that this game just had Saddle Club slapped on top of an already existing game once you have the context. First off, the menus and start screen literally have flowery clip are pasted on top of an existing gritty mine themed layout. I didn't regard it much when I first played and thought it was just poor design... but knowing the game wasn't for Saddle Club, makes you realize just how out of place it looks. Additionally, the music in the game is totally different in Saddle Club's cute and upbeat tones, as the original's soundtrack a bit more mysterious and dark sounding- fitting its aesthetic.
Outside of the obvious aesthetics, theres even more that points to the drastic thematic difference between the two. The music changes the mood alone, but with the context that this game wasn't themed for Saddle Club it becomes more and more clear as you progress through the game and find things like... a graveyard, a gun in a church, the dark mines and traps, character death mention in the story, a castle, and so on.
There are some more unexpected additions to the Saddle Club version, however... and it actually extends to the point where you realize the Saddle Club version is almost like a big upgrade or patch to the original, even when many things don't fit. The obvious change would be the fact that three different players characters were added to the game- representing the main characters of the TV show. You only go to the island as one character because thats how the original was made- not to accommodate for three total. The story wasn't made for it. Also for the Saddle Club version, the old lady who owns the stables exists as a character with a model and greets you to explain more of the story whereas in the original you simply arrive with a letter explaining things and that is it. Some changes like don't make clear sense- like the boy at the stables says more or less in each version of the game, sometimes giving less information in Saddle Club than in the original.
Overall, the Saddle Club version presents things in a more immersive way. Especially with the introduction given by Agnes, you get an idea of whats going on, and then you meet other characters in ways that just make more sense. In the original, you're just there already. Within the first two days you meet characters with incredibly stiff dialogue and awkward triggers to their meets that is just odd and confusing sometimes.
But that's not where the changes stop- and the deeper I dug the more I found in regards to patches for this game. First off, from the Wayback Machine I was able to find the old website which hosted patches for both games. Even though it got the original a bit more up to Saddle Club's standards, certain control in the game still felt totally different. One thing my friend and I mess with HEAVILY was the "unstuck" button. This was something we read in the readme.txt file which contained loads of information we didn't know about the game (such as the fact that the game took 18 months to write!) This button is used to get unstuck, and in Saddle club it pushes you in a certain direction... through walls, and can be abused very very heavily. However, in the original game it doesn't exactly do that. It moves you differently and doesn't allow the same kind of clipping to occur. For some reason this changed between games, and clearly the devs went and altered some of the functions to work differently.
The patch provided for the original adds a few functions already within Saddle Club- including the option to automatically gear up for a ride on your horse. Sadly the patch notes are basically nonexistent, so notes like "story related fixes" aren't explained in more detail to know what they really did unless we go through both step by step to compare.
With covering all those technical changes to the game- theres a bit more, of course!
The original Willowbrook Stables game comes with a little more physically which makes it interesting as well. For one- the game was released without any kind of rating system applied, thus no logo in the right bottom corner.
But aside, it came with a manual and a large map of the entire game's world- which can be downloaded from the old website's snapshot too.
The game's original box art and design show that strikingly different design and tone compared to the Saddle Club version, and I find it so interesting to see a game not built for Saddle Club at all getting rebranded into it. Most repackages of games don't tweak much (Petz games, as mentioned before), but Willowbrook was a story based game, things written for its own world stayed the same but other things had to change. Additionally, coming from such an early time with small devs added up to them improving the game in some ways too. Patches for games were not released like they are now- so to use the repackage as a chance to make fixes sounds very odd compared to now!
All this is to say- Willowbrook Stables may be a crappy buggy horse game, no matter the version... But if I hadn't noticed various details in the readme.txt or the game itself I never would have realized this was the case. IR Gurus is now Transmission Games, and the wikipedia page only lists the Saddle Club version of the game from 2002, not the original in 2001. There are a few web pages that list the original, but its certainly gotten burried under its repackaged form due to name and popularity. Despite their seeming obscurity they have gained traction for games unrelated to horses, you can even read an IGN article about the studio in 2006 here. Even so, the horse games are mentioned as some "off-beat, niche titles" regardless of it being their origins.
Its important to me to dig up some of this stuff- you never know where it may go, and the rabbit hole for obscure titles can go in places I never expected. Especially for titles such as these- the "girl games"- most find little value in them. But the history behind them, the people who made them, shouldn't be left to vanish forever. IR Gurus had an early part in the development of numerous horse games... good or bad, its interesting to find that there was an identical version of Saddle Club that was easily forgotten simply because it was labeled with a big name.