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The rules for mounted combat (PHB p.198) state:

While you're mounted, you have two options. You can either control the mount or allow it to act independently. Intelligent creatures, such as dragons, act independently.

You can control a mount only if it has been trained to accept a rider.

The first two sentences seem to always give you the choice but the next two appear to limit this choice. What is the correct interpretation?

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Despite the rather clunky wording the logic of this is actually clear. Lets break it down:

While you're mounted, you have two options. You can either control the mount or allow it to act independently.

All this says is that there are 2 options, control or independent action. It does not actually say that you choose which one.

Intelligent creatures, such as dragons, act independently.

OK, so intelligent creatures like dragons (or your half-orc barbarian fighter acting as a mount for your halfling wizard c.f. Master Blaster) always act independently, you cannot control them. What counts as "intelligent" is a DM call; perhaps all "beasts" are unintelligent and everything else is intelligent or perhaps the ability to speak (or just understand) a language will be your criteria.

You can control a mount only if it has been trained to accept a rider.

So, if the mount is untrained it will always act independently. Only if it is both unintelligent and trained for riding do you get to choose.

Summarising in a logic table:

Situation          | Intelligent        | Unintelligent
------------------------------------------------------------
Trained            | Acts independently | Rider chooses
------------------------------------------------------------
Untrained          | Acts independently | Acts independently
------------------------------------------------------------
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I recall from the previous editions that anything with an INT score of less than 3 is considered unintelligent. It might not be an unreasonable assumption to make. \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Mar 13 '16 at 22:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know if this needs clearing up, but I'd add in that just because it acts independently doesn't mean you can't try to control it or make a suggestion to your mount, ie. "Hey Mr. Silver Dragon, fly down there so I can be awesome, " or whatever. \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Mar 14 '16 at 14:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Recent Dragon Talk (Timestamp: 25:51) contradicts the statement about an intelligent creature always acting independently. I tweeted to JC for more clarity, but this is what he said. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 17 '18 at 19:42

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