Justin Peterson ushered a pen of newly-made steers out into the drive. He took a count as he pushed them through the gate and made a note of it on the palm of his hand.

He’s dressed in jeans, a ball cap and dirty tennis shoes, but even though he isn’t wearing the footwear most associated with his profession on this particular day, there’s no denying he’s a cowboy. If it can’t be seen in the blood, mud and medicine on his hands from processing bulls, it’s clearly written on the side of his new horse trailer.

Peterson, 22, rode at the WRCA World Championship Ranch Rodeo in November with the Haywire Cattle Co. team from Butler County, Kansas. The team won the average over the four-day rodeo in two events, the Reserve Top Horse award and placed second overall.

Beyond that, Peterson was selected as the WCRR Top Hand.

“There’s a lot of great cowboys down there to compete against,” Peterson said. “It’s tough. It’s really rewarding to get that, but like I said there’s a lot of other guys that deserved it too. I guess I was fortunate enough to get picked.”

The Top Hand award is essentially the MVP of ranch rodeo, given to the competitor who was the most beneficial to his team.

Peterson certainly provided some benefit. He won the average in the ranch bronc riding, securing additional points for his team and tying the current arena record with an 85-point ride.

“A couple of guys, when I was younger, saw me get on some colts that were bucking,” Peterson said. “After that I had some guys ask me if I wanted to get into it, so that’s kind of how I got started.”

To be a member of the WRCA, competitors must be working ranch cowboys, and Peterson uses his rodeo skills in his everyday life. He rides and trades horses as well as running some cattle.

All in the Family

Peterson’s younger brother, Jake, came loping back from driving the calves out to pasture. He was swinging a lasso, attempting to chase down another rider on a Haflinger pony.

Jake Peterson also rides with the Haywire Cattle Co. team; this was his first year on the roster. He’s still attending high school in Welch, Oklahoma, but even before graduating this upcoming spring, he’s become a reserve world champion.

The Petersons grew up on a ranch in Marion County, Kansas before their parents divorced. Their father bought a ranch just outside of Welch, Oklahoma, and the boys went with him to work it.

Callie Jones, the boys’ mother, married another rancher, Andy Jones, and Justin began riding with his Haywire team, followed by Jake.

The team qualified by winning the Kansas Championship Ranch Rodeo in Medicine Lodge, Kansas in September, and Callie, along with the boys’ younger siblings, were cheering from the stands.

“That was the best part of the whole rodeo weekend,” Andy Jones said. “Seeing those two boys have the success that they did trumps being reserve champions or getting reserve top horse either one. Having the success that we did as a family that was the ace in the hole.”

Andy and Justin both rodeoed with other teams in the past and finally put together their own team. They’ve ridden together four years, and each year switched members, but Justin Peterson said the new line-up is likely here to stay.

Jones agreed, praising the skill the boys showed at the finals and throughout the rodeo season.

“They’re very well versed in it,” Jones said. “It’s been bred into them from their mom to their dad, to the influences I’ve had on them, to all points in between. It’s all they’ve ever known.”

The family aspect is what made it special for Justin Peterson as well. He may have won Top Hand at biggest ranch rodeo in the world, but it was a goal of his fulfilled by his brother that made the weekend.

Justin Peterson wanted to qualify for the WRCA finals before he graduated high school, but it never happened. This year, Jake Peterson helped lead his team to second place halfway through his senior year.

“It’s extremely cool. It’s really cool,” Justin Peterson said of getting to compete with his younger brother. “This is my fourth year and it’s the first year I could kind of ride in there without having butterflies in my stomach, but he rode in there and roped to the best of his ability and got along really good.”