Professional equine photographer Chelsea Farace definitely loves horses, but she's always loved gaming too. It's an unlikely intersection of interests, or so we both expected. "I thought I was just the weird horse girl gamer," she tells me. "I thought I was alone!" Now that she has an entire horde of fellow horse-loving gamers riding beside her, she's never alone.
In early 2020, when the global response to Covid-19 mandated national lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, online gaming had a huge boom. Friends celebrated birthdays inside Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Gamers introduced family members to browser party games to keep in touch.
Horse lovers like Farace were facing a different lockdown dilemma.
"Quarantine happened and a lot of people weren't able to see their horses," Farace explains. She was frequenting a Facebook group of horse-loving gamers at the time, and a post caught her eye. "Red Dead people were like 'let's have online trail rides!'" These horse riding groups were largely being led on consoles, so Farace decided to corral a group of PC players herself. "These are my people," she thought at the time. "I've gotta try it!"
When I first found out about The Rift Trails, I expected a small but dedicated group of maybe 30 horse-loving gamers organizing regular in-game meetups. That's what Farace had originally expected too. How many PC gamers could possibly be head-over-hoof horse enjoyers?
"I never thought it would get to this point," she says. "I thought it would just be a nice little comfy, tiny Discord where we'd hang out and enjoy the horse part of Red Dead, And it just blew up."
Nearly two years later, The Rift Trails doesn't just have enough members for occasional horse meet-ups: its 1,690 horse lovers are holding well-attended trail rides in Red Dead Online every day of the week.
The trailhead trot
My first ride with the Rift Trails members is the first time I've ever been in a group this large in Red Dead Online. I'm one of 14 players across multiple posses, all riding in a mostly orderly line from the lighthouse at the northernmost tip of Annesburg all the way to the western edge of West Elizabeth. It's a journey across about half of Red Dead Redemption 2's map, taking multiple in-game days and nights.
Our entire procession passes the hour of real time by swapping gameplay tips, teasing disoriented NPCs as they try to navigate through our crowd, and with a fair bit of giggling over the Marble Sabino Criollo horse whose coat looks a bit too much like a piece of meat. It's comfortable and casual and nobody points out that I've completely forgotten how to maintain a steady pace on my horse. It's been years since I smiled that much while playing a game with a group of strangers.
That first ride was an easy one meant as an introduction to the community for newer members. Other trail rides are Witcher-themed, with riders all showing up in their best Geralt of Rivia outfits. There are spooky true crime story time rides. Fallout themed rides include players' best Wasteland cosplays and a listen-along to Fallout 4's Diamond City Radio.
Even after the hashtag #savereddeadonline trended on Twitter in January and I was writing about RDO's lean year ahead, they were as active as ever. The Rift Trails hosted 396 trail rides in 2021. For horse-loving gamers, Red Dead Online is still a best-in-show experience.
"I have played many different games, but RDO is the only one that makes you feel any sort of attachment to your horse/partner in crime," says one of the Rift's moderators, who goes by MU5K_0X. Part of that bond is down to the amount of customization: saddles and saddle horns, stirrup designs, and different horse mane styles. It's also thanks to the immense work that Rockstar's developers put into making Red Dead Redemption 2's horses so incredibly lifelike. To people who know and love horses, the details are delightful.
"The simplest things make us so happy!" Farace says, listing the ways that Red Dead's horses react to predators, being brushed, and snow gathering on their backs up in the mountains. "They react to gunshots and getting bumped into," Farace adds, and sure enough I've had my own experiences dying by hoof to the face after accidentally agitating a nearby mount. "People that aren't horse people might find that annoying because the horses have a mind of their own—but that's real! It's so cool!"
The Rift players have found all manner of ways to reciprocate the love. Trail rides are one major part of their routine, and photography is another outlet. Farace is a horse photographer in real life, but another of her moderators, Sunny, is a prolific in-game photographer.
"Being an equestrian myself in real life I always try to capture the horses in nice poses," she says. "With RDR2 having some of the most beautiful horse models in video games, topped off with beautiful motion captured animations and a breathtaking wilderness, it's a blast to take pictures in this game." It was by uploading her photos to the Rockstar Social Club that Sunny met another member of The Rift and started joining in on trail rides.
When Rockstar opened a photo contest, Sunny combined her map knowledge and photography experience with new friends in The Rift to snap the photo that was one of six winners from over 10,000 submissions. Sunny says the photo was "a nod to the symbolism of story mode, as it uses the deer and wolf for Arthur Morgan's path to be honorable or dishonorable." The photo of two Rift members is now an in-game flag that any player can fly above their camp.
Farace was glad to spitball with me about how great it would be to see Red Dead Online add a horse training or ranching role—anything to take advantage of its wild horses—but the Naturalist flag may wind up being the only official mark that The Rift is able to leave on RDO. It seems increasingly unlikely that any major update is in its future.
To really express what they want from the game, The Rift has turned to curating their own REDM server, a platform based on the same tech that powers GTA Online and Red Dead Online roleplay servers. In their REDM server, Red Dead Online is a horse-lover's perfect sandbox. Maybe Rockstar will eventually add some additional horse features for Red Dead Online players. But 'eventually' isn't right now. "I don't wanna wait for it!" Farace says.
Thanks to a number of scripts, the Rift's REDM server allows members to claim a ranch, become horse trainers, create custom jumping courses, and even—of course—become a horse.
"It allows us to be much more creative than we could in Red Dead Online," Farace says, which I find most evident in her TikToks that I can only conceptualize as horse thirst traps.
Aside from using the REDM server tools to inhabit an entire herd of horses, Farace explains that players can share the jumping courses they've designed with one another as mods. They can play a herding minigame with their pet dogs. They also have the ability to travel to Guarma, the part of Cuba where several singleplayer story missions take place.
For the love of the mane
Farace and her moderators are dedicated to cultivating a welcoming community free of the griefing and harassment they sometimes face in-game. Outside of Red Dead, Farace says that multiple server members have joined with an interest in horses and then gone on to take horse riding lessons in real life, coming back to share with other Rift members what they've been practicing. Alongside trail rides, the group has raised money for charities like the Trevor Project and Minnesota Freedom Fund.
The positivity is evident in the "cheer corral" room in their Discord server where members say "becoming more active in this server made me fall in love with the game again" and "the Rift has been the most supportive and fun server I've seen." For other members, the server is an opportunity to be themselves, explains MU5K_0X. "The Rift is a place I can just be the gooey center without all the bravado of real life—a place where the friendships I have made are with the real me that usually hides behind all the BS."
Having come and gone from my fair share of online games, I know that a homey, active community can really make or break my love for playing. Regardless of the direction that Red Dead Online as a whole heads, the Rift Trails server members are still saddling up daily to log in, and their excitement is infectious. If you too are horse-loving gamer, you're definitely not alone.
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Lauren started writing for PC Gamer as a freelancer in 2017 while chasing the Dark Souls fashion police and accepted her role as Associate Editor in 2021, now serving as the self-appointed chief cozy games enjoyer. She originally started her career in game development and is still fascinated by how games tick in the modding and speedrunning scenes. She likes long books, longer RPGs, has strong feelings about farmlife sims, and can't stop playing co-op crafting games.