Could anything possibly be more difficult than controlling every ounce of muscle and motion of a 1200– pound horse? How about managing the thoughts and emotions that originate in your little three- pound brain?
David Amerland, in his 2017 book, The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal with Uncertainty and Make Better Decisions does a great job of analyzing the traits of what has got to be one of the world’s most stressful and exacting jobs—that of a military sniper.
Through a series of interviews with these elite marksman, with psychologists, and with neurologists, he attempts to define the skills that enable these men and women to consistently perform in a steady, confident manner in the most dire and unpredictable of situations. Through his research and analysis, he attempts to articulate these traits in a way that the rest of us mere mortals can use to up our game, whatever that may be.
Here’s how some of these tactics apply to riding or driving:
There’s the incremental gains strategy. One sniper, identified as Bobby B. talked about the fact that no shot depends on a single variable or even set of variables. He explains that there are always things working for and against you, so it’s important to know what works well for you and focus on that so you can make incremental improvements on everything you can control.
Interestingly enough, Lilo Fore was quoted in an article as saying that great dressage riders focus on what went well; amateurs focus on failures. See the similarity?
Bobby B. goes on to say that “you create your own record keeping system for every shot, every variable, every condition, every mission. You play ‘what if’ in your head until it feels like you are going mental. And then, if you can try out some of the shots again, changing some of the parameters, it then begins to make sense. You see just how you can make incremental gains that help you get past the limits of what is possible on paper.”
Can you see how devising a system of analyzing your daily performance, say by keeping a notebook of what worked, what didn’t work, and what you might try to make it work, could advance your riding and driving incrementally over time?
Another success factor of the top-notch sniper lies in the ability to observe. One subject interviewed stressed “that sniping is not about shooting every day. It’s about hours and hours of observation.” According to author David Amerland, “Their real superpower then is the ability to observe and think about what they see.”
Think auditing clinics and lessons. Bit by bit, the whys and what fors begin to crystallize and uncertainty begins to fade. You become more certain in your ability to select the correct exercise to implement a correction or create a better movement. Then comes the day when you just KNOW!
Ever get lost in details? Ridden and driven dressage often seem like nothing but details! Amerland suggests making a list, dividing tasks into urgent and important, and ascribing a numerical value to each task from one to three with one being most important. THEN…KNOW WHAT TO CUT!
This simple exercise can be amazingly helpful. For example, in the myriad of movements you wish to accomplish in your dressage test, rhythmic controlled breathing may be the most important thing you can do if it helps you keep your horse rhythmic and your body properly positioned because that’s what your success will be built on! Start thinking about your head and hands, the horse’s head, his haunches, how you compare to the last rider, how you just messed up the last move when it went so perfectly at home, and you quickly lose control of the situation. According to successful snipers, “the secret to being decisive lies in knowing when to say ‘enough’ to the data collection process.” This definitely applies to being present when riding and driving.
There are lots of books out there on sports psychology. Amerland’s book is not one of those. He intersperses nail biting scenarios of such significance that struggles with horse goals are quickly put into perspective. The beauty of this book lies in the fact that through his exploration of the sniper mind, we begin to see how men and women can consistently perform at a premium level as a matter of habit rather than an anomaly.