If you own a horse in eastern or central Maine, you probably know Roice Saunders, 88, of Ellsworth. Since the 1950s, he has shoed and cared for horses in Hancock, Washington and Penobscot counties.
“I have two daughters who said, ‘Grampie, please stop before you get stepped on,’” said Saunders, who decided to hand his business to a friend five years ago.
Horseshoes of all styles line the walls of his garage. Boxes of shoeing nails are neatly arranged in the bed of his pickup. He still visits the farms of his old customers, but the only horse he is responsible for now is the one in his own stable.
“The horse people in Maine are the best people I know,” Saunders said. He paused, then added, “But there are a lot of people who don’t own horses that are great, too.”
Rewind 88 years. Saunders was born on July 20, 1922, in Sedgwick, where Dr. Haggathy came to his grandmother’s home and delivered him. The doctor misspelled his name on his birth certificate — Roice instead of Royce.
Saunders went to Gilman High School and then to trade school in Somerville, Mass. He joined the 15th Air Force on March 7, 1944, and was shipped to Italy during World War II to be a top turret gunner aboard B-24 bombers, which he calls “flying boxcars.”
“World War II, not the Civil War,” Saunders said.
For his first mission, he manned a gun on one of the 300 planes that flew over the heaviest fortified oil field in Europe. Only 100 planes returned.
After 24 combat missions, he returned to Massachusetts in 1945, married Helen Kendrick and moved back to Maine in 1947. The racket of the gun left him with 80 percent hearing loss to his left ear.
“I was always a Mainer,” said Saunders. “The taxes are too high, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else. The schools are good, we’ve got a big hospital, and the police department and everything are fantastic.”
Helen wasn’t here very long before she loved it, too, Saunders said. She was a city girl and had reservations at first.
“She would say, ‘Are we going to have to get groceries once a month?’ and I said, ‘We can get groceries every day,’” Saunders said.
They bought a house in Ellsworth in 1950. The house was 100 years old then, and it remains Saunders’ home today.
“It doesn’t leak unless it rains,” he said.
In Ellsworth, he worked for the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co. For him, horses were never a necessity, but they became his passion.
“The first horse I bought was a hard one to shoe,” Saunders said. “I bought her in town and rode her home.”
Farrier (horseshoer) Bill Carlisle told Saunders to play with the horse’s feet to calm her for shoeing. Three weeks later, Carlisle visited Saunders’ barn.
“He said, ‘You did a pretty good job with this horse,’ and he asked me if I wanted to work shoeing horses part-time,” Saunders said.
Saunders shoed horses on the weekend and continued to work for A&P for 37 years. When Carlisle retired, Saunders inherited his customers.
“Bill [Carlisle] was a real craftsman,” he said. “He made a lot of his own shoes. The thing I regret is I didn’t learn to make shoes from him. I could buy them cheaper.
“The equipment you have to put shoes on has changed a lot, but the basic idea is: It takes a nail to put a horseshoe on.”Along the bottom of a horseshoe, there usually are eight holes, but Saunders knows that you only need to use six nails.
Each nail is hammered into a thin white line called the laminae that rings around the inner hoof or heel.
“Get [the nail] too close and they’re sore right off quick,” he said. “And if the shoe gets caught on something, you want the shoe to fall off, not the hoof.”
He remembers a horse that was haying when its shoe was caught and the outer wall of the hoof was pulled off. The good news: the outer hoof grows back like a fingernail, three-eighths of an inch each month. But the bloody mess took eight to nine weeks to heal.
When a horse wears a shoe, the hoof doesn’t wear down. Therefore, a farrier trims hooves in addition to shoeing them.
Both of his daughters, Joyce Mitchell, 59, and Judy Crowley, 62, owned horses growing up.
“I’ve had horses in my barn for 50 years, and each time one dies, I just about can’t go in the stable until I get another one,” Saunders said.
“Mr. T!” he called as he stood outside the paddock fence. A bronze horse immediately stepped out of the stable to his left and walked to him.
“Anywhere in the pasture, he comes when I call — unless you want to go for a ride,” he said. “He knows when you want to go for a ride and when you’re going to take him out [to another pasture].”
Saunders’ wife, Helen, who had Crohn’s disease, died in 1991.
In 2000, Saunders had his knee replaced, and his “dear friend” and fellow farrier Clyde Rainey came to offer his help. Five years later, Saunders retired, giving Rainey his list of customers.
“He’s like an adopted father,” said Rainey, 58, of Gouldsboro. “Most people that have met him in their life consider him a life treasure.”
Saunders has cared for many horses — including the Rockefeller horses on Mount Desert Island — and he now accompanies Rainey to catch up with old customers.
“He and my husband had a lot in common,” said Elizabeth O’Roak of Orrington, who was Saunders’ customer for many years. “We’d always have him come in the house for coffee. I’d always bake something.
“We’d get out one of the horses to do, and Clyde [Rainey] would be trimming the front feet while Roice leaned against the horse’s rump, and he’d look at me with that twinkle in his eye and in his gravely voice he’d say, ‘Lisbeth, this horse for sale?’ knowing fully well that we’d never part with any of them,” she said with a laugh.
In addition to many friends, Saunders lives surrounded by family.
His granddaughter, Tamara Crowley, and 4-year-old great-grandson Austin Roice Crowley have lived with him for the past five years. His daughter, Joyce, lives next door with her husband, who owns Mitchell’s Antiques.
“I attended his 88th birthday party recently, and there were a lot of people there,” said O’Roak. “The men respected him and liked him, but it appeared to me that the women just loved him.”
Saunders wakes up at 5 a.m. to feed Mr. T and gardens until it gets too hot and he “wilts.”
“I ask him how he’s doing,” said Rainey. “And he says, ‘I’m up. I got my shoes on. I guess I’m doing pretty good.’”