A noble West Point graduate and a Curious George book led Union County native Tim Lepard into the dog-riding monkey business.
And the world will get the opportunity to witness his primate/canine rodeo entertainment act May 10 at 10:35 p.m. on NBC when Lepard performs on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
The opportunity arose when Lepard brought his act to a North Dakota rodeo. A Leno talent scout saw him on a local television station called, asking him to be a "Tonight Show" guest.
Born in Memphis and raised in New Albany's Colonial Gardens, Lepard became interested in the rodeo scene when his oldest brother, a Green Beret and West Point graduate, began participating in the military rodeo.
"I said, if he can do it, I can do it," said Lepard. "You know how you are always trying to beat your brother or sister."
Lepard worked several years at Mohasco, a furniture company, but the rodeo began to conflict with his job. He opted to follow his heart and pursue his dream of becoming a bull rider.
His first years in the rodeo were spent doing that, but he later suffered a broken collar bone and underwent nine major surgeries for injuries sustained while riding.
"People think there's nothing to it," he said, "but it's tough when you're riding a 1,500 pound bull. I've paid for every bit of it, and one of the things I thought of when I was lying in the hospital is why didn't those clowns get that bull off of me."
Instead of riding bulls, Lepard became determined to fight them as a rodeo clown. A serious job disguised under layers funny clothing, rodeo clowns are used in bull-fighting arenas to deflect attention from riders once they've been thrown from the bull so they can escape injury.
In 1987, Lepard met world champion bull rider Lane Frost, whose life story was based on the movie "Eight Seconds."
"He asked me if I had ever thought about fighting bulls for a living," said Lepard, "and I knew that somebody had seen something in me."
Another rider, Jimmy Anderson, convinced him that money was in comedy and said he was the only funny man in the business.
"All those years growing up, I wanted a monkey," Lepard said. "Curious George was my favorite book when I was little, and I said I'm going to train a monkey to ride a Shetland pony. But the monkeys would always wind up on top of the pony's head, and it just didn't look right. So I thought about using a dog. I didn't realize a dog could carry a monkey until I learned what border collies were all about. They have a heart and a desire to please their master."
Now Lepard has dogs, Hoss and Taco, and monkeys, Susie and Wrangler. Susie will meet Jay Leno because she's "better with people" than Wrangler, who likes to make it known he's in charge.
"They're like little humans that never grow up," said Lepard, who said the monkeys have three specially-designed outfits for each of his own ensembles.
For the past 12 years, Lepard has worked as a clown and comedian at rodeos across the country performing his act, "The Ghost Riders," in which Capuchin monkeys ride Border Collies and round up wild Barbados sheep in the rodeo arena.
The act has been recognized as one of the top national acts by the International Professional Rodeo Association and the American Cowboy Association. And Lepard is the five-time World Champion of the Comedy Act Division and the 2000 World Champion Dress Act winner.
"When I won the first world title, I didn't have to work," he said. "I left my job, and my brother said, 'Whatever you do, you've got to make sure you do it 150 percent. Do it for your country. That's why all of our costumes are red, white and blue. Things just started falling in the right place, and I just took it and used it. I really worked hard at what I did."
Lepard said he was honored to be invited to the Tonight Show.
"I think I'm going to go on stage first so Jay can cut up with me, and then we are going to go outside and do the act," he said. "They found out that one of the monkeys likes to drink Coca-Cola, so they may have it do that on stage."
Lepard said it's not the money or his recent fame that keeps him in the rodeo business. His philosophy is, 'You get to rest when you're dead,' and he lives by it, performing at more than 300 shows a year.
He said he was recently startled when a Memphis Make-a-Wish Foundation representative called to tell him a child had wished to meet him and his animals.
"She said, 'Her first wish was to go to the moon with her family. Her second wish was to meet you and the 'Ghost Riders.' I presented her with the 2000 Dress Act of the Year buckle I won in Oklahoma City. I've done a lot of things, but that was one of the best."
Lepard said “Late Night with David Letterman” has contacted him, and the producers are trying to schedule a June performance in New York.