On the solemn occasion of a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, the most enduring image may be that of the horses: big and bold, black and gray, pulling the traditional caisson laden with a casket containing a soldier's body.

The man who shod those horses was Pete Cote.

For 35 years, as the official farrier at Arlington's Fort Myer, Cote tapped special shoes onto the hooves of horses that rode in nine presidential inaugurations, the funeral processions of presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and thousands of military burials.

Cote's horses rode in funerals for famous people as diverse as World War II Gen. Omar Bradley and the astronauts who perished when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. His small farrier shop on the grounds of Fort Myer's nearly century-old stables became an attraction all its own, visited by celebrities including actor Tom Selleck and model Christie Brinkley.

But the years of swinging the special horseshoe hammer took their toll. Cote recently had rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders and over the years broke his nose, jaw and ribs. He even suffered a collapsed lung. "Sometimes the horses will kick you, or fall on you, or run you over," he said.

As a result, Cote -- the U.S. Army's only farrier -- retired last week. Army officials say he will be sorely missed.

"He is one of those unsung heroes behind the scenes. We can't be in this business very long without someone like Pete," said Lt. Col. Thomas H. Roe, commander of the caisson platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard, which provides funeral and ceremonial support for Arlington National Cemetery.

"It's not a normal thing in the modern Army to be worrying about horseshoes in order to accomplish your mission, but we certainly do here," Roe said.

Over the years, Cote has trained more than 150 military farriers who helped him part time. Some of them will step in until another civilian farrier is hired.

Roe said that for now, he will have to pay more attention to shoeing Fort Myer's 46 horses, but he said the quality of the horses supplied for Arlington funerals will not change.

Cote, 55, a small man with sandy hair, leathery skin and piercing blue eyes who has worn the same horseshoe belt buckle for 35 years, didn't want to leave the job he loved.

"My mind says don't retire, but my body says I have to," he said last week in his garage-size farrier shop, with its aroma of horses and its metal rack loaded with 900 steel horseshoes.

"How many people can actually go and say they've put shoes on a horse in Arlington Cemetery, on sacred ground?" Cote said. "How many people have ever shoed a horse for President Reagan, horses he actually rode? I've had a remarkable career, and I've enjoyed every minute of it."

Others in the profession are impressed as well. "To know that somebody has worked in one place, for one customer, for 35 years, that is truly unique. You just don't hear about it at all," said Bryan J. Quinsey, executive director of the American Farrier's Association in Kentucky.

Quinsey said the injuries farriers tend to suffer lead to a high burnout rate, with most farriers lasting about 10 years. And most of America's estimated 30,000 farriers, he said, live a nomadic lifestyle, driving to various horse farms and ranches with their equipment.

There are no educational or licensing requirements to be a farrier, Quinsey said, though most who work in the profession attend one of about 55 farrier schools nationwide. The average time spent in school is three to six months, Quinsey said.

Cote, a New Hampshire native, became interested in horses at a young age. When he was 12, he started hanging out at a nearby horse farm. One day, the 78-year-old farrier needed a hand.

"He went to the corncrib and pulled out two shoes," Cote recalled. "He nailed one on, and I nailed the other one on."

Cote was hooked. At 16, he moved to Northern Virginia and started shoeing for a local stable before graduating from Woodbridge High School in Prince William County.

A stint at a farrier school near Roanoke followed. In 1969, Cote was drafted into the Army and sent to serve with an artillery unit in Germany. Eight months later, he wrote an unusual, and gutsy, letter to the Pentagon.

It said that his superiors were misusing his talents and that the Army would be better served if he were allowed to shoe horses. "Either they were going to say okay, or else I was going to be scrubbing floors with a toothbrush," Cote said.

The Army agreed and sent him to Fort Myer. At the time, Cote said, the Army had not recognized the need for a highly trained farrier, and the three military personnel doing the job were having problems.

"They had 26 horses, and every day you would come to work and 15 of them would not have shoes," he said. "They were using the wrong style of shoes, the wrong nails and the wrong methods. They were just draftees."

As Cote tells it, he quickly righted the ship, so to speak. He worked at Fort Myer as a military farrier for about a year, was honorably discharged and then came back as a civilian farrier six months later.

He never left -- until last week.

To the end, Cote remained precise and driven about the art of shoeing horses.

He describes being a farrier as a multistep process of "working with a horse's feet." Horses that work on rough, gravelly surfaces, such as the Fort Myer horses, need shoes. But their hooves, which grow about a quarter of an inch a month, first need to be trimmed.

Cote trims the hooves with a giant toenail-clipperlike instrument called a hoof nipper. "You have to level it, make it balanced," he explained. "You don't want one side of the hoof higher than the other. It's like trying to take a crumpled-up piece of paper and a flat one and put it together. It won't work. But if you take two sheets of paper off the same notebook, it will be level."

Before shoeing a horse, Cote heats up the shoe in a small, coal-burning oven that sits in one corner of his shop. The heat enables him to mold the shoe to better fit the horse. He then nails the shoe on, using a 14-ounce driving hammer that pounds six nails into each shoe.

Cote's first inauguration came when he was the official farrier for President Richard M. Nixon's parade in 1973.

Some of his fondest memories date to the 1980s, when he would get an occasional call instructing him to deliver three or four shod horses, usually to Quantico.

They were for President Reagan and his "entourage," Cote said. He said he shod Reagan's horses like any others, but admits he put the shoes on extra tight and checked them a few extra times.

Most of Cote's workday, which began at 5 a.m., was spent preparing horses for each of the eight funeral caissons that go from Fort Myer to Arlington Cemetery on an average day. Families of warrant officers and above have the option of a funeral with full military honors, including a caisson pulled by six Fort Myer horses that are always black or gray. Officers at the rank of colonel and above are entitled to an additional riderless horse.

"I've enjoyed the animals, working with them," said Cote, who is especially proud to have played such an important role at Arlington.

"It's a national shrine," he said. "They are the nation's fallen heroes."

Though Cote will no longer work with the military, his horseshoeing days are not over. He will continue a more leisurely freelance horseshoeing business out of his home in Stafford County, where he has three Rocky Mountain horses of his own.

For $85, Cote provides a "full set" of four shoes.

Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the Army will forget him. Officials at Fort Myer may rename his former office the Pete Cote Farrier Shop. And a permanent plaque will be mounted on the wall, commemorating Cote's service.

Pete Cote inspects Casperina's hoof and heel before applying a new shoe.A metal rack holds 900 steel horseshoes at Cote's workshop. The garage-size operation may be renamed the Pete Cote Farrier Shop.Cote has shod horses that rode in nine presidential inaugurations.Cote has broken his nose, jaw and ribs at work.