How would one control a dragon while riding it, especially if dynamic control is necessary?

Disclaimer: I have never ridden a horse, so my understanding here might be completely wrong.

The way I understand it, you control steer a horse using reigns by pulling it's head left and right to turn the horse, letting the reigns go to signal acceleration and pull the reigns close for deceleration.

What would be a good, "natural" control scheme to control a dragon while riding it?


  • Control using hands, maybe feet. Magic, telepathic or voice-based control schemes are out of scope.
  • Needs to be fast enough to facilitate dogfighting
  • Should cover flying and landing/starting. Special attacks of a dragon (fire, claws, biting) doesn't need to be covered
  • Doesn't need to be reigns, could also be rods or other types of mechanical controls
  • The dragon is about as smart as a horse.
  • The dragon can be "adapted" for riding/controlling it. So for example, it could be bread to have elongated spines or horns that the rider can grip to control the dragon.
  • Medival setting, so no electronics, fly-by-wire or anything like that
  • $\begingroup$ Well, the trick is simple.. you just take him to the horse-shoer, who will drive nails through the scales- and you just electrify that killing machine from the skys selectively with wire pairs. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Commented Mar 16 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ In John Norman's Gor novels, the ride-able birds (tarns) were controled by straps attached to their necks somehow. $\endgroup$
    – FlaStorm32
    Commented Mar 16 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ Have you looked into horse riding (on the internet)? It seems like you're asking how horses are ridden. $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Commented Mar 16 at 22:42
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I thought people steered horses with gentle pressure of their knees, unless you mean in the training cycle, before a horse is fully trained and mature. With dragons you've got extra dimensions - up/down and then there's flamethrower on/off etc.. How intelligent are these dragons? Can they understand human speech? (Apparently domestic dogs can understand 80-100 words on average, though that'd seem to indicate that we've had some dumbass mutts over the years) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 16 at 23:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Horses are social animals. They will follow their leader even to their own deaths. The other animals that will do this are dogs, elephants, and humans. Do dragons have that strong a social bond? If not, then they will be hard to control no matter what you do. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17 at 13:43

6 Answers 6


You're looking at this the wrong way

From one point of view, your understanding of how horses are controlled is completely correct. From another, it's completely in error. The problem is that you don't appear to understand what's happening.

What the rider is doing is training the animal. In the beginning (especially if done badly), a form of coercion is used — the bit in the mouth that drags the horses head into the direction the rider wants. But the bit isn't enough to exert total control. How do you cause a gallop, for instance (coercion: spurs)?

What any good animal trainer (including those of horses) will tell you that the animal will be under better control if rewarded for behaving as desired. Thus, if the method of control you want to use is a bitless bridle, then all you need is patience, affection, and a lot of apples or sugar cubes. If you don't want to to take that much time, the bit is faster, but the bond (I believe) is weaker. With a dragon, that might have somewhat irreversible consequences.

My point is, what "method" you use for control (bridle, knee pressure, vocal commands, slapping/tapping with a crop, etc.) is an aesthetic. It's window dressing (kinda, I'll talk about this momentarily). What counts is that the creature has been trained to behave in a specific way as directed by a desired method, and from a certain point of view, no method is better than another.

Like I said... kinda...

One of the evidences of the masterpiece that is Dune is the control of sand worms. We're talking about creatures that have one or more attributes that doesn't allow them to be trained like, for instance, a dog or a monkey. They're huge! They're mindless! There isn't an apple importable in the galaxy that would impress them! Herbert created a creature that had to be coerced (and subjugation of nature being one of the themes of his books...). How did he describe it? Methods were used to open a seam along the body that let irritating sand into soft subdermal skin, causing the worm to roll, which caused the worm to turn. The order in which tools were used to expose that soft flesh determined the direction of the roll.

And, of course, there were those at the tail of the worm slapping the snot out of it to make it go faster. In some ways, humanity never changes.

So... what attributes or characteristics about your dragon would lead to a unique method for conveying directions to the trained creature? Nerve clusters? Irritated muscles? Electric shock?

Because the method is window dressing (like asking what color you should paint a house), a question about what methods could be used is inappropriate on this Stack. They're all equally valid and depend solely on your design of your creature — but the answer to this present question is simply this:

Train your dragon.


Actual serious horse rider here. So the biggest issue as I see it is that no matter how well trained, riding a horse is always a potentially imprecise endeavor. Even the best animal sometimes misinterprets or refuses to listen to your aids and even the best rider sometimes gives confusing or imprecise signals. On a horse this is dangerous enough but on a dragon, that is not only more powerful but also flying, this would be quite an issue. IMO, your dragons need to be smarter, so that they have the capability to understand and consciously participate with the rider. No need for the oft used mental bond trope but definitely more than the human-horse relationship.

That said, there are plenty of aids available. You could certainly use some sort of headstall with reins, or perhaps just a neck strap for added controls, and I'd think you'd definitely want some sort of harness to keep the rider on their back during maneuvers, but if you make the dragons smarter and more responsive than you are describing, I don't think you'd need the extra help. I'd suggest something that is almost a combination of the sort of aids we use to ride - squeeze with both legs to go forward, press with one knee or leg to turn away from that leg etc - and something that is a bit like using a hoverboard where your bodyweight controls and turns it. I don't think you'd really need to describe it in detail. A little info about using your legs and a character perhaps getting a thrill from the way his dragon follows his body motion so smoothly and you should be good to go.


You strap the dragon so that it has a saddle and a pair of handles on the back. You control yaw, pitch and roll with those handles.

  • Control roll by pulling one handle from the dtagon and pressing the other against the dragon.

  • Control pitch by pulling or pushing both handles forward and backward.

  • Control yaw by pushing one handle forward and the other backward.

As for speed: tap the dragon rapidly with your feet to speed up, squeeze with your knees to slow down.

Finally, poke the dragon with your hand to make it spit fire.


I think there's two fundamental parts to this, as JBH highlights in their answer: One is "Can dragons be trained in the same way real world mounts are trained?" and the other is "If they can be trained, what shape can the commands for 3D maneuvering take?".

The second question is almost trivial once you decide on the first, and you seem to have decided that yes, your dragons are trainable in a similar fashion to horses.

Horses, once trained, are usually directed by applying gentle pressure with your legs and feet, moving the reins or vocal commands. For now, let's discard vocal commands, since you aren't convinced it would work.

Why do I say it's almost trivial? Even reduced to only legs, feet and reins, horseriding cannot possibly have exhausted the whole universe of possibilities of signals you can send to a mount via these three mediums. Additionally, a dragonrider might also use its hands to pat the dragon's back in different patterns to form simple signals ("two short taps and leave the hand on the dragon's back" could mean "go down until the rider lifts their hand").

Anyways, as JBH said, this is usually more of a "window dressing" issue than a "worldbuilding" issue. If you want to tackle it as worldbuilding you'd have to get more specific about the technical aspects of riding, for example: how do the riders sit on the saddle? Are they upright like in a Vespa? Or more "coiled" like in a sports bike, with their chest touching the dragon's back, to be more aerodynamic? The second one opens the possibility of using their elbows and arms to send additional signals to the dragon. But many of the questions will almost inevitably send you back to the question of whether dragons are trainable or not (things such as "how intelligent are the dragons?" or "how much coercion do they need to follow a dangerous instruction?" will first and foremost shape the way the dragons are trained. And this will, in turn, affect the way the orders have to be relayed to them).

However, going back to voice commands: Your idea that voice commands at full speed flight wouldn't be heard opens up an interesting worldbuilding opportunity: Let's take it as fact, you can't shout loud enough for the dragon to hear you. You can solve this, for example: the dragon's back could be specially sensitive to vibrations to aid in 3D navigation, and the riders could take advantage of it by vocalizing particular commands that make their chest and body vibrate in ways that the dragons can easily pick up and recognize.


Horses are intelligent beings and they do their own control very well. Dragons are even better. To a horse, you are communicating what to do, is happening by touching them and by moving your point of weight on them.

Same could happen also on dragons, although things would be much more complex, because the dragon can fly in 3D.

Important thing in the horse riding, the horse knows, what do you want and does it. If he understands that you want him to walk on the right side of the street, that is what he will do. If he wants... they have their own personality like humans. In some things, they are surprisingly stupid, for example they consider only their own height if they are running below branches :-) But they are rejecting commands what they dislike. Particularly they do not like to jump. In any case it is important for the horse to consider you as a teammate. For that, you must care him, regularly every day.

Dragons are intelligent. You can talk with them. You can not control them, they control you. But you can communicate your wishes to them also by weight positioning, and also by just saying it.

More important problem is that the dragon considers himself as a higher level being as you are. They can not see, why should they do that. They are also very, very independent and very strong personality. Very likely, you have simply nothing what they would need, and it would motivate them to transfer you.

There are some exceptions, but these are very rare. For example, being their friend since their hatchling age. Here the problem is that if you die from old age, they will be yet in their late childhood. Beside that, your odds that a female dragon allows you to visit her eggs, and her children, would be a much bigger wonder as if she would allow you to ride her. Again, there might be exceptions but these are very rare.

These are for the friendly dragon flavors. The lesser friendly ones are the same, except that they can not see any bad in eating you.


Well, the trick is simple.. you just take him to the horseshoer, who will drive nails through the scales- and you just electrify the scales, to give the dragon uncontrollable itches. Of course, it hates you, so, if you let go of the central control nail, you will get eaten and toasted.

  • $\begingroup$ Downvote all you want! I nailed it.. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Commented Mar 22 at 21:22

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