Horse Play

Like a Y2K fever dream, the glitchy game Saddle Club: Willowbrook Stables continues to haunt Louise Cain and her siblings.

For a certain generation of Australians, the words “Hello world, this is me,” will evoke memories of three pre-teen, horse-mad girls jumping in unison over a log. I am talking about The Saddle Club, an Australian Canadian kids’ show about the adventures of best friends Carole, Lisa and Stevie at Pine Hollow Stables. The series ran intermittently on ABC TV across this millennium’s first decade, but my lasting memory of the franchise is not of the show. It’s from the obscure, spin-off PC game The Saddle Club: Willowbrook Stables, which continues to haunt me and my siblings even now, 20 years after we first booted up our computer and set off on a cursed horseback adventure.

Willowbrook Stables was released in 2003 by Transmission Games, the Melbourne-based company behind such hits as AFL Premiership 2006 and Ashes Cricket 2009. My sister and I were obsessed with ponies but, living in suburbia, we had to make do with imaginary versions. That Christmas, our horse-phobic dad presented us with a copy of the game. When it was too hot to go outside, my brother, sister and I would drink Milo and take turns playing it on our clunky old desktop monitor. I was mostly happy to sit back and eat Cheezels while watching the other two solve the trickier puzzles, piping up now and then with a joke.

The game’s links to the show are tenuous at best. You play as one of Saddle Club’s three heroes, who are holidaying, for some reason, on a craggy island off the British coast. The familiar faces of Pine Hollow have been replaced by a ragtag group of strange locals who seem like sinister Doc Marten rejects – a threatening postman, a woodland witch, a creepy miner with a pickaxe – all animated with the same unnerving, jerking graphics. Your job is to save the local stables from evil property developers.

Like the setting, the aim of the game is also a mystery. Why are the Saddle Club girls in England, undertaking this anti-capitalist crusade? Why does nobody bat an eye at the notion that 12-year-old girls on a camping holiday should shoulder the burden of rescuing this estate from investors? And what kind of pony club allows a child to ride their horse into a mine shaft?

As my siblings and I grew older, and puberty widened the space between us, the basic story lost its appeal. But each time we played, we found new glitches that offered chance glimpses into another dimension. We came across three different cows, running in circles by a cliff’s edge: one normal, one the size of a small dog, and one as big as a bear. Another time, we angled the camera to look under a lake, where 20 to 30 stock characters stood at the bottom, lined up in a pack, staring straight ahead like a ghostly army.

I am still not completely sure if these weird glitches actually happened, or whether they’re the product of a collective fever dream. Every summer, I set off on an internet hunt, trawling Reddit threads and old gamer blogs for evidence of this game’s existence. Like our version of Manderley, Willowbrook Stables now exists mostly in our shared memory.

Recently, I found a video of someone playing the game, with the same gentle flute music and terrifying background characters. More than anything, it made me miss my siblings. Nowadays, we live on opposite sides of the world, in London, Tokyo and Melbourne. Our lives have diverged, and the pandemic has only widened the distance between us. But clicking through these videos, I felt them sitting next to me, steering Carole/Lisa/Stevie into a haunting dimension of weird and wonderful bugs. I text them out of the blue, asking if they remember the cows, the people in the lake, the bizarre villagers. They reply with yet more weird encounters: horses getting stuck in walls, people with phantom limbs, and so on.

Willowbrook Stables didn’t teach us much about equine care, but it defines our sibling relationship. It continues to bring us so much unhinged joy. And when I wake in the night thinking of those lake people, or Stevie’s haunting face jolting backwards like a budget M Night Shyamalan villain, I know just who to text.

By Louise Cain

Louise Cain is a writer and researcher based in Naarm/Melbourne currently completing a thesis on French cinema.
First published in Ed#684