Jul. 30—GOSHEN—Tim Lepard is a rodeo junkie through and through.
Since he was a young kid growing up in Pontotoc, Mississippi, rodeoing was all he really knew.
As he neared high school, he was already conquering broncos and bulls.
“I think it all started from the bottom,” said Lepard of his love for the rodeo. “I mean I started out riding bucking horses, then I started riding bulls, and I ended up clowning, because I wanted more of those bulls. They called me ‘Wild Thang’ because I had no fear. I’d run up to them bulls, let them hook me and throw me over. I just loved the adrenaline rush from the people and their reactions.”
Being involved in the rodeo lifestyle isn’t for the faint of heart and Lepard quickly found that out after accumulating numerous bumps and bruises during his early days, whether it was as a cowboy or a rodeo clown.
“I had a guy come up to me one time,” Lepard said. “This was back in 1977, he told me ‘you aren’t going to last very long doing this. You better find something else.'”
So, instead of putting himself through the grind of being a rodeo clown all his life, Lepard started brainstorming.
From a young age, Lepard had a fascination with monkeys. He’d always wanted one, and he ended up getting his first Capuchin monkey during his high school days.
“Reading Curious George books, playing with sock monkeys and all of that when I was a kid,” Lepard said. “That was my dream. My dream was to someday own a monkey.”
After a bit of time, getting to know the in’s and out’s of what it’s like to have a monkey as a companion, he discovered something that caught his eye.
Every once in a while, the monkey would climb onto the back of his dog at the time. It was a funny sight to see — an entertaining one even — and from there, an idea was born.
After doing some research on various dog breeds, Lepard discovered one of the smartest breeds was a Border Collie. He knew if this ‘Cowboy Monkey Rodeo’ idea was going to take off, he’d need not only a group of intelligent dogs, but a very well-trained group of intelligent dogs.
“I wanted to learn everything I could about the Border Collie,” Lepard said. “I went over to England, Scotland and Wales to learn how to work the Border Collie’s. I just kept working these dogs, and learning as much as I could about them.
“The monkeys don’t deal with any growling or anything like that from the dogs, so it was important to get the right ones for this to have worked.”
Well, eventually, it did work.
Since the late 80’s, Lepard and his team of ‘ghost riders’ have traveled both nationally and internationally, performing anywhere from hometown rodeos to sold-out arenas.
On Friday, the show was on full display for those in the stands at the Elkhart County Fair.
“We’ve worked any sporting event out there,” Lepard said. “Baseball, football, the NFL. You can look us up on YouTube, and you’ll find videos of us everywhere. I’ve been averaging around 30 minor league baseball games over the last 13 years, and there’s thousands of videos out there calling us the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo. I prefer to call them the ghost riders, because of a little old lady that came up to me one time and told me the monkeys looked like little ghosts riding on the back of the dogs. From then on, to me, they were the ghost riders.”
Lepard and his crew of ram-corralling monkeys and dogs have been to countless places in both the United States and overseas over the last four decades, but when asked what’s maybe the one place that’s left an impression on the grandest scale, Lepard mentioned one of NASCAR’s largest raceways.
“Charlotte Motor Speedway,” Lepard said. “There’s 115,000 people there. I mean, the ground was vibrating, and I thought ‘man, this is crazy.’ I honestly couldn’t understand how all of those people from way up to the top of the bleachers were going so crazy, but when I turned around, the screen we were on was huge.
Even with all the success he’s seen with his act over the years — having won multiple rodeo championships within the ‘specialty act’ category — there’s been some large obstacles along the way.
In 2000, a broken generator on his trailer caused all of his animals to perish, forcing Lepard to start from scratch. And in 2020 due to COVID, I have stopped being able to work for over a year. Because of that, he had to sell off some of his monkeys and dogs to get by.
Factor in the fact that he basically lives year-round on the road, and one soon realizes how much Lepard pours into his act and his animals.
All roadblocks aside, ‘Wild Thang’ considers himself blessed to have done all he’s been able to in his lifetime.
As far when he’s going to retire? At 63 years old, Lepard has no plans of slowing down any time soon.
“I’ve been asked when I think I’m going to retire numerous times,” Lepard said. “And you never really think about it. This has been my life for so long. I didn’t choose to be in this life, it just kind of happened, and I went with it. As far as deciding on retirement, I honestly hope the night before I die, I was performing at a rodeo. I don’t want to be in an old folks home. I don’t want to go out suffering.”
Evan Lepak can be reached at email@example.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240326. Follow him on Twitter