Stepping from a crouch under a tall black horse named Tom, Peter Cote straightens and reaches for a pair of plastic goggles. He grabs a couple of horseshoes from a rack, turns on the bench grinder and sends a shower of sparks flying as he begins to shape them.
With an acetylene torch, he cuts the shoes to size, then buries them in the red-hot coals of a forge. Once the metal turns white-hot, he removes them and hammers out toe clips that will hold them on the hoof. Six nails are usually enough to attach a horseshoe, though Cote remembers having to use 16 of them once on a horse with flat feet.
After 35 years as the farrier at Fort Myer, he's learned more than a few things about horses and a little about life -- mostly the hard way.
He's been kicked and stomped on, head-butted and sat on. And still, he says, he feels as though he understands horses "a whole lot better" than people.
The trick is to "work with them and not against them," he says. This is, perhaps, one of the hardest-won lessons he will take with him when he leaves his job today as the last civilian farrier on the Army payroll.
For 35 years, his days as the farrier at Fort Myer, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, have begun pretty much the same. Wake up at 3:30 a.m., feed his three Rocky Mountain horses at his home in Fredericksburg and drive to Fort Myer.
At 5 o'clock in the morning, it's still dark. Members of the Old Guard, the oldest and most prestigious active-duty infantry unit in the Army, based here, are gathering outside the stables for reveille when Cote pulls up in his white pickup truck. A sign painted on the side of the door reads "Horse Shoeing. Pete Cote. Nation's farrier." Cote jumps out of the truck in bluejeans and a faded green and pink shirt. He opens the big wooden doors of the blacksmith shop, turns on bright fluorescent lights, takes a quick walk through the stables to gauge what needs to be done and stokes the forge with coal.
By 6 a.m. his apprentice arrives, and stable hands start bringing in the horses that need to be shod. Brooks and Sure Fire are the first of the day. Cote ties his mule-skin apron around him and gets to work.
Every six weeks, each of the 46 horses in the stable is brought in for a new set of shoes. On this day, three are up for shoeing. Every day, two teams of eight horses will be called on to pull a caisson to Arlington National Cemetery. Back and forth, sometimes several times a day, the horses can walk up to 15 miles in a day on hard pavement. By 8:30 a.m., the horses must be saddled and ready to go.
Cote, 55, knew he wanted to be a farrier from the moment he shoed his first horse, at age 12. Drafted into the Army after high school, he spent eight months in Germany as a heavy artilleryman. But after writing letters to the Pentagon touting his knowledge of horses, he was transferred in 1970 to Fort Myer, where he started working in the stables. After being honorably discharged in 1971, he was hired back as a civilian blacksmith and farrier.
As the primary farrier for the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the Army's official ceremonial unit, Cote has helped prepare horses for ceremonial events from Lyndon Johnson's funeral in 1973 to Ronald Reagan's last year. In between he has shoed horses for nine presidential inaugurations and countless military parades.
When asked about the highlights of his career, however, he is more apt to talk about battle scars than ceremonial moments.
Nose, ankle and jaw -- all broken at one time or another. Cracked rib, collapsed lung, herniated disk, torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders and torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Each injury tells a story about a moment.
Like the time he caught his left middle finger in a halter, and the horse he was walking back to the stable pulled it all the way to the back of his hand. He can't lay it flat anymore. Another time, a horse fainted and fell over on him. Collapsed right lung. Three weeks in hospital.
In one of his earlier accidents, as he walked up alongside a horse, it turned its head, butting Cote in the face. Nose reconstruction. Four days out of the shop. Not to mention "two big black eyes," Cote recalls.
Then there was the time a horse got scared and kicked him in the mouth. "I couldn't open my mouth," says Cote. For weeks he lived on soup and milkshakes, writing down what he wanted to say.
Eugene Burks, a saddler who has worked with Cote for more than 20 years, says he learned from Cote's accidents -- and sometimes not-so-subtle tutelage. Once, Cote confined him in a supply room by nailing the door shut after Burks brought him the wrong supplies.
"Pete is just a little radical," says Burks, 48. Cote's colleagues have been known to respond to him similarly, such as the time they tied him to a chair and soaked him with a bucket of water as a happy birthday joke.
As much as Cote has been a cornerstone of the stable operations, his presence throughout the years has also helped in "holding this platoon together," Burks says.
For the past eight months, Cote has been teaching an apprentice, Sgt. Bradley Carlson, 27, to succeed him: "Keep foot level. Keep shoe level. Make it pleasant to the eye . . . if it pleases the eye of the owner, the horse is well shoed."
Carlson says he's learning to "put what where" and is confident that "I can do pretty good." Still, Cote leaves "a big shoe to fill."
Cote, for his part, will leave with some reluctance.
"My mind says I don't want to go, but my body says I have to go," he says. Pain is a part of his daily life -- it forces him to sleep on the floor, keeps him on a steady diet of muscle relaxants and pain relievers. But now, at least, he will have more time to enjoy trail rides with his wife, taking care of his own horses.
His last day, he figures, will be a low-key affair. Lunch at the firehouse at Fort Myer -- "cheeseburger and fries." Then on the way home, he might make a house call. Shoe another horse or two.
Then call it a day.