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Allen Boyer: ‘Three Steps Up to Mediocrity’ By Pamela Reband, M.D.

Book cover

This is an eloquent book about climbing and covering ground: the scores of miles that an endurance rider may cover, the span of physical and psychological distance that it takes to come back from injury and debility.  Author Pam Reband, who grew up in Oxford, has written a memoir that will resonate with many – those who ride, and those who have risen to other challenges

“Three Steps Up” starts with an accident and an injury.  On a trail outside her home in Arizona,

Pamela Reband, a rider for almost all of her life, had a fall that twisted her out of the saddle and brought her horse down on top of her.

“Sometimes rock bottom isn’t metaphorical,” Reband tartly observes.  “They make bricks out of the dirt in Arizona.”  The fall tore her rotator cuff and bruised her bones; she could not trust herself to climb stairs without handrails.  These injuries arrived before Covid weakened her lungs and family medical problems demanded her time and concentration.

Falls can sap a rider’s confidence, particularly on the uneven ground of a cross-country trail.  Reband was not immune to this. 

Photo of the author Pam Reband courtesy of Amazon

Nor could she readily share her worries with her friends who rode, for none of them were endurance riders.  (Endurance riding means covering anywhere from twenty-five to a hundred miles in a timed period, over a mapped trail.  The terrain is likely to be spectacular, which  usually means rough and difficult, with the further requirement that the horse be “fit to continue” both at the start and at the end of the ride.)  Her friends thought that a doctor starting retirement should cut back to the amiable pace of trail riding.

Few riders become endurance riders; even they may not understand why.  Self-effacingly, but with a keen eye for the for the romance and spectacle of the trail, Reband explains the appeal:

“Because of endurance riding, I have sat a horse listening to the wind whistle through an old windmill while I gazed at an abandoned homestead in the Mojave Desert.  Who had lived there? How had they stood the isolation?  . . .  I have gazed at petroglyphs left by peoples long gone and passed abandoned stagecoach stations, pony express trails, and army forts.  I have ridden the trails once ridden by Cochise and the Earps and followed the footsteps of Coronado and the twenty-mule teams of the Borax mines.  I have ridden for miles within ten feet of the drop-off into the Grand Canyon . . .  I don’t just ride endurance; I am an endurance rider.  Not a good one, maybe even the world’s most mediocre endurance rider, but it’s who I am.”

The three steps of the title are the three steps of a heavy plastic purple-colored mounting block that must be climbed to step into the saddle.  Reband acknowledges the absurdity of finding it difficult to climb those steps again.  She also notes an even more fundamental absurdity in starting a ride:

“The next step was to place my left foot in the stirrup . . . .  Easily done: just lift that foot, move it over six inches or so, place it in a small stirrup attached to a saddle that could slip at any moment, perched on a 1,200-pound animal whose every instinct from millennia of evolution screamed that he was prey and I was predator and when in doubt he should run and ask questions later.”

Sometimes, this is a rider’s book.  (Reband briefly ventures into what looks like an enduring debate, whether the endurance of an Arabian or mustang outweighs the smooth gait of a Tennessee Walker.)  More often, Reband brings out the sensations of endurance riding.  Summing up the pandemonium at the starting line, she comments: “Picture NASCAR without rules where the cars have minds of their own, the accelerators are all stuck, and the steering is iffy.”  She also sardonically drives home the peculiar difficulties of a rider’s life, such as finding a hamburger joint where the parking lot is big enough for a horse trailer.

Reband proves a keen judge of horseflesh.  When she first saw one horse, a six-year-old palomino gelding, “a small horse in too large a saddle and looking none too enthusiastic,” she immediately saw immediately that the horse silently adapting to his trainer’s post-operation orthopedic boot, “actually holding his body in such a way as to balance his rider as much as possible.”  The horse became her new endurance mount, Shiloh, which in Bible means “place of peace” or “gift of God.”

Shiloh has proven worthy of the name.  Supported by a circle of family and friends (some lifelong riders from Lafayette County; others more recently made, including perceptive, reliable trainer Scott MacGregor), Reband has returned to endurance riding, in Middle Tennessee.

Readers in Oxford will remember Pam Reband’s father Karl Brenkert as the longtime dean of the University of Mississippi engineering school and her mother Betty for her work with the Oxford Eagle, city government, and community charities.  The honesty and humor of this book will be no surprise.

“Three Steps Up to Mediocrity: The True Story of a Woman Afraid, A Tough Little Horse, and the Man Who Brought Them Together.”  Pamela Reband, M.D., author and publisher.   139 pp.  $11.99 via Amazon (paperback), $5.99 Kindle.


Allen Boyer, book editor of HottyToddy, grew up in Oxford and on the Ole Miss campus.

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Adam Brown
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