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Matt McLaughlin: Ask, Tell, Demand

Grand Prix dressage trainer Matt McLaughlin explains his fundamental training concept of ask, tell, demand.

This article is sponsored by Cosequin®.

The foundation of Matt McLaughlin’s training philosophy can be summed up in three words: ask, tell, demand. Regarding these commands, he is referring to the rider’s aids and how they are applied. As part of this tenet, he also emphasizes the importance of a three-second training window where the progression of these aids needs to happen. When the horse responds to any one of them, he deserves a reward. Finally, the training session (whether it is one movement or the entire ride) needs to end on that positive note. 

Matt McLaughlin riding Princeton, a 14-year-old Hanoverian gelding
Photo © Stephanie J. Ruff

Aids for Ask, Tell, Demand

McLaughlin stresses keeping the aids for ask, tell demand simple and consistent. He also likes to tie them in with another critical piece of training for dressage horses—transitions. For example, when he asks the horse to go from a walk to a trot, he starts by signaling the horse to go forward quietly using the calf. If there is no response, he escalates the aids. The tell might mean he adds a little spur or a slight cluck. If there is no response to that, then he gets to the demand phase. “That’s going to be much louder,” McLaughlin says. “Maybe a stronger spur or maybe a tap or a touch with the whip.”

McLaughlin also explains that he always immediately precedes the whip with a cluck. “The point of that is I want to eventually not have to use my whip.” The end goal is to have the horse respond promptly to the cluck, which would take the place of the whip in the demand phase.

Ask, Tell, Demand in Action

As an example, McLaughlin talks about a training ride on Princeton, a 14-year-old Hanoverian. The gelding is a safe adult amateur horse, who can be dull to the aids. McLaughlin’s goal is to always have him be sharper off the leg. 

To achieve this goal, when McLaughlin asks Princeton to go from a walk to a trot and the horse doesn’t respond to McLaughlin’s ask with his calves, McLaughlin immediately goes to his tell and demand, all in the horse’s three-second learning window. In this window, “I have to reward him, or I have to escalate within three seconds. Beyond that, and the horses have a hard time understanding,” he explains.

So in this example, after the ask, “I tell him to go with my spur,” McLaughlin continues. And if Princeton doesn’t immediately respond to the tell, “then I demand he go with my whip.” 

Immediately following that transition, McLaughlin brings Princeton back to a walk and asks again. When McLaughlin adds just his calf, there is no response, so he adds the spur. The horse grunts but goes forward. This is an improvement since McLaughlin didn’t have to go to the demand phase, so he rewards Princeton with a quick pat and a “good boy.” 

Want to watch McLaughlin work in real time? Check out the video of him riding Princeton here.

The Importance of the Reward

Rewarding a horse appropriately for trying is key. How big of a reward should it be? “That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with the horse,” says McLaughlin. “If it’s something very new, like a flying change, the reward should be to get off the horse. If it’s something that the horse has been doing over and over, and you’re just trying to remind him that he’s done the right thing, it would be a very small, subtle reward.”

In Princeton’s example, when the horse starts to feel a little bit more energetic, McLaughlin checks to see if he will go just off the calf, and he does. McLaughlin rewards him verbally along with a pat on the neck. He repeats the transition several more times to be certain the horse understands. When Princeton responds well, McLaughlin allows him to walk on a long rein to stretch his neck. That is ending on a positive note because Princeton responded well to what was being asked of him.

“We have to start with ask—calves, tell—spur, demand—whip. Then each time gets lighter and lighter until he finally goes off the ask. We reward and end on a positive note.”

This seems like a simple exercise, but it can be challenging to react quickly enough and to stay consistent with it. However, with time and practice, the rider can implement this basic exercise to easily improve the horse’s response time and lightness to the leg aids.

Matt McLaughlin began studying dressage and the art of training horses at an early age. He has successfully trained many horses through Grand Prix as well as multiple horses in haute école including capriole, courbette and levade. He has earned the U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold rider medals and is a U.S. Equestrian Federation “r” judge. Based in St. Cloud, Florida, McLaughlin travels throughout North America and Europe as a clinician.

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