“My life is full whenever I’m with my animals.” This is how the conversation begins with Tim “Wild Thang” Lepard, the main act at this year’s World Championship Hamel Rodeo. Lepard and his team of dog-riding monkeys, whom he calls the Ghost Riders, are so popular their schedule is booked two years out ~ and they’re finally here.
“The way we communicate together, I’m always asking what can I do to make things better for them,” Lepard confides his passion for his animals. “I talk with one of my monkeys like he’s a human and he looks at me like, ‘I understand, I understand.’ We now have 4 monkeys, though we usually take 2 at a time (on the road).
Having been a long time competitor in rodeos, Lepard saw an opportunity to do something different one day when at home with his pet monkey. “I was sitting at the house with the monkey in my lap eating popcorn. He would run down on the floor, go through the dog’s hair, then run and jump back in my lap. Before it was done he was down on the floor, grooming the dog while on his back, hugging and riding him. I thought to myself, that’s cool! The first picture I ever took was of my pet monkey riding my dog around the yard. If I could get him to sit up and ride him he’d look like a cowboy! I was going to get a shetland pony, but monkeys like to climb up high, he’d climb up between the horses ears and the horses would shake their heads ~ the monkeys didn’t like it. But in the dog kennels the dogs go to where the monkeys are and lie down. The dogs think when the monkeys are grooming them they’re petting them, it was a natural bond.”
Working with purebred border collies, 80% of Lepard’s dogs are rescues. “In the past 10 years, always having 4-6 dogs at a time, I’ve raised only two from pups.” The rest have come from people who see his act, watching his dogs doing what they were born to do. “People don’t realize how much energy a border collie has. They get them as pups, raise them to a certain age, see my act, then call and ask me if I’ll take them. They’ll say the dog just wants to run and run up and down the streets.” Lepard pauses, thoughtfully considering his words emphasizing the border collies’ instinctual needs. “These dogs are bred to work, they WANT to work.”
A natural cowdog with an urge to herd, the training consists of equipping the dog with a monkey for the performance. “Once you put the saddle on the border collies’ backs, they don’t even realize it’s there. After you work them a time or two (herding) with the saddle on, you just add the monkey. Each one of the monkeys bonds with their own dog. It works! Sam likes Ned ~ he grooms Ned, goes through his hair while Ned goes to sleep. They grew up together and ride together, they’re a team, they bond and work together. The pair even has a certain saddle they’re used to wearing.”
As much as the dogs enjoy working, Lepard only carries them four to five years before retiring them. “We want them to live a dog’s life,” Lepard emphasizes. “We adopt them out to live out their lives under a shade tree to rest. I always tell the new owners to feed the dogs only two cups a day. But they usually feed them table food and the dogs get so big!” Lepard laughs. “Our working border collies are lean, fit and muscular.”
Wistfully Lepard recalls, “One of my dogs performed nine years. I let him work longer because he would just stare at the monkeys. When he was younger I thought he was looking at them like food but no, he just loved them so much! In 2000 a tornado came through and blew my house away and took him. It broke my heart, I said I would never do that again, allow another dog to work without giving him a break to enjoy the rest of his life.”
Changing gears, Lepard gives me an education on the other side of his act. “In the wild monkeys will live to 9-10 years of age. But I have a monkey that’s 36!” He describes how, without predators, monkeys live much longer. He points out the strongest part of the monkey’s body — it’s tail. “They wrap it under the belly of the dog to hold on, it’s like a leash to them.”
The monkeys have their own living quarters with a swimming pool, ladders, swings and a rocking horse. Inside they have central heat & air. The dogs and monkeys are required to live separately with their own septic tanks by the USDA because monkeys can be carriers of viruses and disease.
Tim chuckles, “I heard the sheep is the dumbest animal in the world. I thought, ‘I can train them!’ Then I learned. Sheep never do the same thing twice, if I’m ever nervous (at a show) it’s because of the sheep, not the monkeys or dogs. It keeps every show different!
Recently one of Lepard’s dogs made national news, but non-performance related. “All of our animals have chips in them. Two years ago one of my dogs went missing. We looked for a long time, but never found him. This year we got a call from the Virginia police asking if we were missing a dog ~ it turns out a vet scanned a dog that was in for a vaccination. She discovered the chip and contacted the police.” A happy reunion and confirmation to Lepard the need to microchip his animals for safety’s sake.
Together with his dogs, monkeys and sheep, Tim “Wild Thang” Lepard and Team Ghost Riders bring their family dynamics to four shows at the Hamel Rodeo starting Thursday, July 11 through Sunday, July 14.