As I pull up to the steps of rancher Chris Peterson’s home, four dogs come to greet me before I can even jump out of the truck. Peterson comes walking out of the house with a big grin on her face. It is a rainy February morning with clouds looming over the rolling, yellow hills of Patagonia.
Peterson proudly shows me the bright, blooming daffodils sitting at her gate that she potted recently as the dogs roll and bark in the dewy grass of her front yard. She walks up the steps into her small adobe house, infused with the aroma of just-baked bread and coffee.
Peterson and I sit down at a large wooden table in her intricately decorated kitchen. Western art, cowboy paraphernalia and photos of family hang from the red-painted walls.
Peterson walks over with a batch of homemade cinnamon rolls and offers coffee as her dogs rest at her feet. The front door is open. We can hear the light drizzle of rain coming down while the birds chirp.
It’s an atypical day for Peterson.
Typically, the 61-year-old Peterson is awake as the sun barely starts to peak over the Patagonia Mountains, tugging on her boots at 5:30 a.m. to go check the cattle. She picks up her favorite cowboy hat, tussles her sandy brown hair into it and steps out the front door, her four furry friends right behind her.
Looking out over the dimly-lit land, she sets off walking toward her corral to retrieve her horse, Sis. As she comes up to her, Peterson greets her with a smile, calling her pretty.
Peterson,at 5’3” tall, has to stand on tiptoe to give Sis a hug around her neck before placing the rope halter on.
She says good morning to eight other horses, greeting every single one as she walks past them. She heads off through her land to check on her cattle.
A week after my first visit, on a sunny morning in Patagonia, Peterson and I prepare to ride out to check the cows. Peterson gently lays a heavy, studded leather saddle onto Sis’s back.
One of her dearest friends and fellow rancher Sonny McCuistion gave her that very sparkly studded saddle – “a little more bling than I’m used to,” she says – but she still uses it just because he gave it to her, she said with a heartfelt laugh.
She mounts Sis and we head off to find her herd with her dogs in tow, into the tall grass and rolling mountains.
“When I was young, I always wanted to live on a ranch,” Peterson said. “I love animals. You know, as a little girl you always dream; you sit on the wooden fence and you look over all this open country.”
After years of nomadic living in various places, from Haiti to Wisconsin, Peterson and her late husband Larry wanted a place to raise their three young kids. They had a list of requirements, chief among them was a place where they could settle on a ranch.
They chose Patagonia because Peterson recalled seeing the beautiful landscape on an earlier trip, and decided this is the place she wanted to be.
They purchased the RedRock Ranch in 1997. Larry had some experience with raising cattle while living in North Dakota, but raising cattle in Arizona was new to them. They picked it up with Larry working the numbers and business side and Chris working with the animals.
Peterson is in the business of raising calves, which she then takes to auction to be sold to other ranchers. She makes sure that her female cows produce calves by having enough bulls around so the cows get pregnant. She owns about 22 head of cattle, one bull for every 10 cows – all Black Angus cattle.
She maintains her own ranch of about 200 deeded acres and works McCuistion’s cattle as well, routinely checking his cattle, gates, and waters. “She’s a super good rancher and likes cattle. She takes care of hers and takes care of mine. So that works well,” 95 year-old McCuistion said. She goes over to help herd his cattle and check on the calves, and has dinner with him every night to keep him company.
Getting a late start into the ranching and cattle raising industry, only having handled cattle since 2008, Peterson has picked up a lot of knowledge from other ranchers in the area. She feels the ranching community has accepted her.
While Peterson does most of the work herself, she does have help. Her son, Thor, 30, has ridden and been around horses since he was two. He helps his mom out with daily ranch duties like branding the cattle, castrating the bulls, fixing fencing and putting out salt licks and hay for the animals. When it is time to castrate or brand the cattle, Thor and Peterson herd them on horseback through the hills and along the ridge, down into either their corrals at RedRock or to McCuistion’s ranch, where there are specially-made corrals used for branding and cutting designed by McCuistion himself. “Working with my mom, it’s like working with a friend,” Thor said. “Doesn’t get much better than that.” They work side by side, tackling everything that the ranch throws at them. “We’re going to keep ranching until we can’t ranch anymore,” he said.
Thor is also a silversmith, and has made custom spurs, bits and belt buckles for his mom. When he is not ranching, he is working in his silversmith shop, creating custom cowboy art like iron bridles, bits, spurs, and jewelry.
Something that makes Peterson stand out as a rancher is her gentleness toward her animals. When she distributes bales of hay to her cows, they walk right up to her and let her feed them straight from her hand.
“Your animals tell you so much…I like to have my cattle know me on foot, on the quad, in the truck and on the horse. I just like to have them know me from all angles,” Peterson said. “I have a problem that they’re over-gentle,” she said. She said they don’t blink twice when she comes around on horse or on foot. That could be a problem for others who get too close. “Since I do most of the work, I’d rather have them over-gentle.” With a small herd, she knows each and every one.
When Peterson comes upon some cows shuffling through the creek water, her dogs run over to them to herd them. The cows start mooing in disagreement at being moved by Zorrita, one of Peterson’s two heelers.
Peterson checks their protein barrels, water, and where the cattle are moving to and from. She also checks the animals and listens to hear if any are bawling, As she passes her cows, she greets them as if they were humans. “Hello girls,” she said.
At the end of the day, as Peterson came back up the creek towards her house through the tall, yellow grass, she hopped off Sis and led her back to her corral, hugging her once more as her dogs trailed behind her.