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At age 91, jockey still riding tall

Standing atop a stool, the onetime jockey prepared to climb on board a horse for one of the first times in a long time.

"This is when I have my problem," said the 91-year-old Jack Carter, crossing a leg over the horse's back in an unsure manner.

"Never in my life did I dream I'd be using this (stool)," he added. "I used to jump on bareback."

"Slow and steady," the volunteer hand reminded him at North Country Ride in Esko.

The white-speckled, one-time show horse, Cisco, stood still as the helper got Carter arranged in the stirrups.

Then off he went.

Back in the saddle again.

Until recently, it had been 40 years or so since Carter had ridden horses. It was once something that mattered as much to him as life itself. Racing horses, riding in packs with the neighbor boys along Big Lake Road, and even delivering newspapers using a cart and horse, it all came naturally.

"When we had horses, I'd get up in the morning, saddle them up and I would not come back until the street lights came on," he said.

At 14 and weighing 65 or 70 pounds, Carter asked his father if he could race thoroughbreds. The answer: he was going to get killed on a horse anyway, so go for it.

"I can't believe it," said his daughter Cindy Carter, 56, of her father getting on horses again. "He's really happy with it. It's good at his age and with his handicap and his hips."

Recovering last year from aspiration pneumonia, which can infect his lungs with something as simple as an errant swallow, Jack Carter had slowed to a point the family didn't recognize him.

"He was in and out of the hospital and had to go down to a walker (from a cane); it really changed his life," Cindy said. "It was sad to see him sick and sitting there."

Both Carter and his wife, Darlene, 92, retired late in life. The longtime proprietor of Carter's TV and Appliances at 10th Street and Cloquet Avenue, Jack was 88 when he stopped managing at the couple's former home at Ramsey Village Townhomes in Duluth. Darlene was 91 when she gave up volunteering at a hospital. They were active, used to moving around and being involved.

Earlier this month, Jack Carter proved how far he'd come in his recovery. He was talkative and spirited. He wanted to hold the reins in one hand, not two, and didn't want his picture taken with the volunteer hanging onto the horse's reins.

"I'm 91, not 100," he said.

Carter flashed his twinkling eyes at the audience, which included his son, Rick Carter, 65, North County Ride executive director Julie Peterson, and volunteer coordinator Dani Hurd. He embodied the possibilities associated with equine therapy.

"He'd been very much not interested in things, and it has been a hard year for him," Rick said from atop a former barrel racing horse named Duke. "This is a really big deal."

"The magic in his eyes again," Cindy Carter added. "When he first met Duke he was going to get on that horse, come hell or high water."

Jack's wife, Darlene, agreed.

"He's happier," she said. "It's bringing him back to his fun times."

From the indoor arena at 180 Hatinen Road, Jack Carter and a volunteer leader moved Cisco throughout the fenced-in dirt oval. Carter navigated the circumference of the arena, and later wound the horse through barrels. It was all done at a walking pace.

"Very good," Carter said, pleased. "Like a rocking chair."

Carter made for a good candidate for equine therapy, Peterson said.

"He had previous background and his family suggested he do this to reconnect with horses," she said. "They said this had been miraculous for him."

In the summer, North Country Ride conducts a full slate of programming. It offers four sessions a day, featuring four riders for an hour each. Every year, roughly 100 riders are served by North Country Ride. Insurance companies are even finally starting to consider equine therapy as reimbursable health care treatment, Peterson said, adding that she's working on an insurance arrangement.

"Jack is definitely our oldest rider," Peterson said. "We see a lot of people with arthritis, muscle issues, that kind of thing - physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities.

"We have a lot of riders on the autism spectrum. They make a connection with the horse that they can't make with humans."

North Country Ride currently has 27 volunteers, but can accommodate as many as 40. Hurd said she's willing to beg, borrow and steal new volunteers.

"We get people that love horses; we get people that love working with people with special needs," she said. "We get people that are retired and looking for something to do with their time."

Volunteers get to help folks like Jack.

"It brought back a lot of memories - a lot of memories," Carter said. "I lived on horses; all my buddies had horses."

The memories came in a rush. Sleeping in stalls with horses at fairground race-tracks across the state. Being in Grantsburg, Wisconsin and asked to race owner Spec Hebert's fastest thoroughbred because the field was loaded with experienced riders and Carter was 80 pounds lighter than the Hebert stable's other jockey. He won the race. There was the time his siblings brought the family's Shetland pony to his second-floor bedroom while Carter was recovering from a skull fracture suffered in a non-horse-related accident.

Of course, there was the family's Welsh pony that ran him over as a way of greeting him.

"I was off him for a long time," Carter said. "I didn't want anything to do with him."

The flood of memories was a sign, even at 91, of an old man becoming new again.

"He's been telling stories," Rick said. "That story about racing thoroughbreds in Grantsburg? I'm 65 years old and I've never heard that story. ... The one about the horse going up the stairs? I've heard that one a million times."

Carter can still recall the names of customers at his TV and appliance store. Back in the day, there were four or five appliance stores in town, including one operated by Minnesota Power, which allowed folks to put ranges and refrigerators on their electric bills at zero interest.

"There was a lot of competition," Carter said fondly.

Back in the saddle, he's showing his grit and vigor.

"He is a hoot," Hurd said. "When you're one of the privileged ones who gets to walk with him and hang out with him when he rides, he's fascinating. The life he has lived and the knowledge he retains."

It's not long before Jack speaks up from the saddle.

"You gave me a dumb horse," he wisecracked, when Cisco failed to respond to Jack's one-handed neck rein. (Cisco likes the direct, two-handed neck rein technique.)

"He's a spitfire," Peterson said, leaning into a fence.

Carter has several sessions to come this summer. All three of the Carter's adult children, including daughter Cathy, live in the Twin Cities. He's meeting Cindy this week for another ride. Earlier in its existence, Jack had taken some of his grandchildren to North Country Ride.

"The purpose is to work on core strength and mobility," Peterson said of the physical therapy benefits of equine therapy. "The more he rides, the stronger he will get with his legs and core. He's already got a strong core."

An independent therapeutic program offered by North Country Ride allows riders to lead and tack the horse, then ride without assistance, once they have proven themselves. That program is more aimed at emotional and mental health.

Jack seems intent on getting there soon. As a jockey would.

"Next time," he said, "I should advance to be without a chaperone."

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