At Fort Myer, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery,
a sign painted on the side of the door reads:
“Horse Shoeing. Pete Cote. Nation’s farrier.”
After 35 years as the farrier at Fort Myer, Va., Pete Cote has 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 as he leaves his job as the last civilian farrier on the Army payroll.
Members of the Old Guard, the oldest and most prestigious active-duty infantry unit in the Army, based at Ft. Myer, are gathering outside the stables for reveille when Cote pulls up in his white pickup truck.
Cote jumps out of the truck, 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. Cote ties his mule-skin apron around him and gets to work.
Reaching 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 willhold 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.
Every six weeks, each of the 46 horses in the stable is brought in for a new set of shoes.
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.
Cote, 55, knew he wanted to be a farrier from the moment he shod 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 shod 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.
Each injury tells a story. The list includes cracked ribs, collapsed lung, herniated disks, torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders and torn ligaments.
In one of his earlier accidents, as he walked up alongside a horse, it turned its head, butting Cote in the face. That earned him a reconstructed nose, not to mention two black eyes. Another time, a horse fainted and fell over on him.
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.
Cote has been teaching an apprentice, Sgt. Bradley Carlson, 27, to succeed him: He advises him to “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.
Eugene Burks, a saddler who has worked with Cote for more than 20 years says that 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.”
It is with some reluctance that Cote leaves the horses and the members of the Old Guard at Ft.Myer. “My mind says I don’t want to go, but my body says I have to go.”
Cote now looks forward to trail rides with his wife and taking care of his own horses.