Former Jockey Purdom Finds His Calling at TRF Farm

TRF Farm Manager Dean Purdom | courtesy Dean Purdom

Dean Purdom never lost confidence in his riding ability. He knew he had the skills. What he didn't have were the results. Purdom bounced all over the country, going from track to track until he wore out his welcome and headed to his next stop. The problem? He was trying to do the impossible, find success on the racetrack despite having an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.

“I started back in the eighties,” Purdom said. “I had a really promising career. I was the leading apprentice one meet at Pimlico. That's where I got introduced to cocaine. It gradually just took over my life and, therefore, my career. I wasn't available mentally or physically, which you have to be to be able to do the job.”

In 1992, he made the decision that would change his life for the better. He entered a treatment program and has now been sober for more than 31 years.

Purdom, 65, went back to riding but never could jump start his career. He retired in 1997 with 371 career victories and moved to Ocala where he worked horses at the sales. But what he really wanted to do was to help people. He saw that as a requirement, exactly what he needed to stay on the right path.

“For me, helping people is a necessity,” Purdom said. “I have been in recovery a long time and a huge part of that is once you get your act together, to be able to keep it together you need to help others. In recovery, life can get pretty good. And when that happens it's easy to forget how bad things were. So helping new people is important. I've been able to help a lot of people along the way. But they were helping me, too.”

He has devoted his life to making a difference. The first stop was a job at Mending Fences, a mental health treatment center in Delray, Florida where equine therapy was part of the program. He might still be there if it weren't for a chance encounter with John Evans, who was running the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's program at a women's prison, the Lowell Correctional Institution. Purdom had met his future wife Niki after she left the Lowell program and when the two were married, Evans walked Niki down the aisle.

Evans was looking to retire and saw in Purdom the perfect replacement. Last May he took over from Evans, who had been at Lowell for 17 years. It's been an eye-opening experience.

“I had been driving by this prison for years,” Purdom said. “One day I was driving by with Niki. I had seen all these horses out in the field. I told her that the whole thing didn't make any sense to me. Why were they keeping all these old, broken-down pasture ornaments? I didn't understand the economics of that. Most horse people would have had that same attitude. She explained to me their true value and what these horses do for the inmates. These inmates, their self esteem is pretty much in the tank when they get here. They haven't had anything go right for a long time. When they walk into the stall, especially the first time, these horses will greet them. They haven't had something like that in a long time. They end up getting really personal with them. They start gaining some self esteem. They start to get their self respect back as well as confidence. It's all because of the horses.”

Having struggled with many of the same problems that led many of the inmates to prison, Purdom was happy to share his story with the women of Lowell.

Female inmantes in the TRF program near Ocala | Stephanie Brennan photo

“Probably 80, maybe 90 percent of the women who come here have addiction issues,” Purdom said. “They don't have meetings here for them. So I openly talk about my own struggles.”
Once he settled in at Lowell, Purdom's goal became teaching the inmates skills they could use to get jobs at the many farms in Ocala. Lowell is the only TRF program where the inmates are allowed to ride the horses. That's how Niki Purdom got started as an exercise rider.

With there being a shortage of help in Ocala, Purdom knew that the graduates of his program could easily find job at local farms if taught the right skills. The easiest way to find a job would be for them to learn how to prep weanlings and yearlings for the sales.

“The TRF allowed me to bring some yearlings here that were prepping for the sales, so the women got experience handling them,” he said. “That gives them a way to get into the farms. They can get hired and it's something they can do right away because they've been taught and have experience. This is something that can be a huge springboard. I know most of the owners and trainers in this area. I rode for them for 20 years. I can be a liaison so these women have an opportunity the day they get out and there's a job waiting for them. I want the local horsemen to call me and ask if there's anybody getting out.”

It's also a way to see to it that the women don't pick right up where they left off before coming to Lowell.

“If they go back to where they came from, the likelihood that they will stay out of jail is slim,” Purdom said. “What I want to do here is offer them an option.”

The relationship between the horses, the women, and Purdom, is mutually beneficial, and Purdom knows that he's getting as much out of this as anyone.

“At this stage of my life, having a purpose is pretty important,” Purdom said. “It's what gets me out of bed every day.”

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