When thinking of equestrians held in high esteem in both Palm Beach and the East End, few names ring louder than that of Kevin Babington, an Olympics-level Irish rider who tragically fell from his horse at the 2019 Hampton Classic Grand Prix and suffered a complete spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe regularly. Now in 2022, he’s slowly regaining control over his body, has a busy teaching schedule from his farm in Wellington, FL and is doing color commentary at area equestrian competitions.
None of this would’ve been possible without his unbreakable resolve and the creation of the Kevin Babington Foundation.
Shortly after immigrating to the U.S., Babington gained widespread acclaim as the Leading Rider at the CSIO National Horse Show, then as the winner of the Hickstead Grand Prix in England, then two victories at the 2004 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington. In 2013, he took the Grand Prix prize at the I Love New York Horse Show, the Hampton Classic Grand Prix prize in 2014, then an Irish Team win in the FEI Nations Cup and a Grand Prix win at HITS Ocala CSIO4 in 2015. In the following years, he earned more big wins at WEF, the Hampton Classic, the Silver Oak Jumper Tournament and other prestigious horse jumping events. He seemed an unstoppable force.
“The year of the fall, he was kind of on a tear — he was first, second and third on three different horses at Lake Placid, which is statistically unheard of,” says Jeff Papows, Kevin Babington Foundation chairman, Silver Oak Jumper Tournament founder/chairman and author. “He was doing extraordinarily well, and he was preparing to go to the Tokyo Olympiad.”
When Babington fell, he landed on his chest and somersaulted forward, stretching the spinal cord in his neck, though thankfully not tearing it completely. He was helilifted to a trauma hospital and placed on a respirator. Things looked dire.
“They were convinced that would be the end of it, but Kevin being Kevin, he just continued to fight,” Papows says. And the equestrian community decided to join the fight, as well.
The Kevin Babington Foundation was founded to help raise awareness and funds for Babington’s costly medical care and physical therapy, to do the same for other riders who suffer spinal injuries, and to advocate for improved safety equipment and immediate treatment of such injuries. Fellow equestrians were eager to contribute and Papows has a hunch why the community rallied as strongly as it did.
“(After winning a Grand Prix) Kevin would always look for the smallest child coming out of the in-gate, and he’d take the ribbon off his horse and toss it to the child. He was just that way,” he says as an example of Babington’s exemplary character. “Because of that, when he got hurt, the sport — I think somewhat uncharacteristically — rallied around him.”
Papows continues, “I think we’ve been successful because of the esteem Kevin is held in, not because of his talent or accomplishments, but because he’s been a dirt-under-the-fingernails, hard-working guy who’s always set to take young horses and make them into Grand Prix athletes, instead of spending millions to buy them. And he’s always helped the students along the way who couldn’t afford lessons.”
On the topic of jumping lessons, Papows reports that Babington was eager to get back to teaching after his sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber helped strengthen his lungs enough to breathe and speak without issue. And though wheelchair-bound for the time being, Babington’s mind is as sharp as ever — able to spot a pinky out of place via cameras that allow him to teach remotely.
“Keeping him mentally in the sport continues to motivate him,” Papows says. “He’s got as many students now as he had before the accident.” In addition to the motivation aspect, teaching at the Wellington farm has helped restore Babington’s skilled family of riders — wife Dianna and daughters Gwyneth and Marielle — to a steady stream of income after so many of his clients vanished following the accident.
Through stem cell intervention trials at Mayo Clinic, physical therapy four hours a day and many fascinating devices such as a mechanical saddle to strengthen core muscles, Babington’s body is getting stronger and showing miraculous signs of mobility improvement. He is now able to move all of his toes, three fingers on his left hand — “including the important Irish one” — and his more-abled right hand can nearly reach his face. His favorite device seems to be his functional electrical stimulation bike, which sees the user strapped in by the hands and feet and hooked up to electrodes that stimulate the muscles and retrain the neurons.
“The next major thing we all want to see is him being able to stand and get out of the chair, and that’s a ways off, clearly, but I have no doubt that we’re going to get there,” Papows says. “If it were somebody else in a similar circumstance with the same injury, I’d be much more skeptical, but this guy’s will is heroic.”
His new wheelchair grants him limited independence with right arm joystick control, and it comes equipped with a button that triggers emergency services. Should he be unable to push the button, such as during a blood sugar crash, he is being outfitted with a service dog who will press the button for him should he say the command “help.” Donated by Canine Support Teams Inc., Samantha has also been trained to pick up dropped items, open doors and remain calm around horses.
The Kevin Babington Foundation has been by his side every step of the way and continues to raise money and awareness for Babington and riders like him, such as young Alexis Halbert, who in 2020 at age 15 fell in a children’s jumper class and broke three vertebrae, leaving her legs without feeling. The foundation helped pay for her bespoke care at The Shepherd Center, and she’s now walking again and even plans to play soccer next season.
The next fundraiser takes place on February 22 at Mida Farm in Wellington, where Victoria McCullough will be hosting a Kevin Babington Foundation benefit and auction, which include items such as a guitar signed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, private lessons with top equestrians (including Babington) and more. Riders from an estimated 55 stables and nine countries will “Ride for Kevin” in a 1.45m Grand Prix from 10 a.m.–2 p.m. The online auction ends at midnight.
“If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to carry this foundation and raise visibility, awareness and funds and do everything necessary,” Papows adds. “I am going to see him walk again if it’s the last breath I take. I have no doubt that he’ll get there.”
To learn more about the Kevin Babington Foundation, upcoming events and ways to donate, visit kevinbabingtonfoundation.org.