Monkeys riding dogs: on life after rodeo

This is a photo of a monkey riding a dog. It's not Photoshopped. To do so would be un-American. Team Ghost Riders

For some strange reason, there aren’t many guidebooks out there on how to teach a monkey to ride a dog.

But that didn’t matter much to Tim “Wild Thang” Lepard, who discovered through trial and error the secret to making it work: Pop-Tarts.

“I can train a monkey to ride a dog in three days,” Lepard says. “It’s just time, patience, love, care, Pop-Tarts.”

Using this formula, Lepard has created perhaps the world’s most spectacular show starring simians and canines, like “Planet of the Apes” if conceptualized by Twain. Billed as Team Ghost Riders, Lepard leads his monkey posse to shows and festivals all around the country where, clad in fun-size chaps, they cruise around on border collies rounding up sheep like furry little John Waynes.

And it’s everything you could ever hope for.

Lepard had dreamed of working with monkeys ever since reading the "Curious George" books as a kid. The dream was postponed, though, by a career in rodeo, where for years he electrified crowds as both a bullfighter and a clown.

Then came the injuries. Evel Knievel-caliber injuries. Lots of them. So in 1989, Lepard decided it was time to start working with animals that weren’t as fixated on maiming.

He bought a monkey.

Yet the thing is, it’s difficult to get people to take you seriously when you say you’ve bought a monkey, especially when your intentions are to build a career by training it to be a tiny jockey. A world champion rodeo clown Lepard admired once told him he would never be successful, that he didn’t have the showmanship to make it work.

To Lepard, the criticism was fuel. Any doubt, any setback—it was all just horsepower for his vision.

There was also a piece of advice from his brother that helped him define his purpose and still motivates him to this day: “Remember one thing in life: Give 150 percent and do it for your country.”

Monkeys for America. Hell. Yes.

Lepard started making it happen, and he wasn't satisfied with early success. Instead, he continued to nurture and cultivate his show, adding more animals and extraordinary elements to broaden its appeal.

The demand for Team Ghost Riders catapulted, and all of a sudden the weathered bullfighter and his bronco-busting primates were playing to stadium and coliseum crowds on a regular basis. Lepard was racking up international awards, and he was partnering with charitable foundations such as Make-A-Wish and Susan G. Komen for the Cure to bring joy and awareness to incredibly worthwhile causes.

Lepard attributes his success to the fact that Team Ghost Riders was never “just a show” to him.

“You have to care more about those animals than you do yourself,” he says. “This is family. It’s not a way of life. This is my life.”

Lepard’s love and admiration for his animals are overwhelmingly apparent. When he talks about them, his voice is hued with that dad-whose-kid-just-took-his-first-steps kind of pride, so oddly touching that even the most militant of PETA types would melt. And he’s not forcing the animals to do anything. If they don’t want to wear a costume, they’re free to take it off. If they’re asked to perform in an environment that could make them uncomfortable, Lepard will turn down the gig. He doesn’t even pressure them to ride the dogs; the Pop-Tarts take care of that for him.

“Give ‘em a Pop-Tart and they will hop on that dog and ride," Lepard says. "And when they finish that Pop-Tart they will groom that dog and make sure they get every single crumb.”

And all the ladies said: Awwwwwwww.

Though Lepard can’t predict exactly what’s next for Team Ghost Riders, he says the show will continue to thrive and evolve as long as he keeps dreaming.

“Thirteen world titles, nine major surgeries and three wives later, I’ve done it," Lepard says. "I’ve followed my dream, and I’m still chasing it.“

For our sake, never stop chasing. This world needs all the monkey business it can get.