LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. — “Does this remind you of something?” the teenager shouted to her parents, who were watching from their farmhouse’s back porch. “You guys were usually the ones running next to us!”
As part of a riding lesson, she was sprinting alongside a pony with a giggling girl in the saddle. It was the kind of lesson her parents, Kevin and Dianna Babington, had given her and her sister years before.
The parents smiled at the memory. Now, their 14-year-old daughter was the one leading that brown pony around the ring. The Babingtons know not to take such moments for granted.
Until last August, Kevin Babington, an Olympian, was having a remarkable career as a rider for hire in the equestrian sport of show jumping, in which horses leap fences set up over a winding course.
Babington, 51, would take clients’ horses and increase their value — sometimes into the millions — by riding them to top finishes. Last July, he swept the top three places at a Grand Prix event on three different horses. At that highest level of show jumping, it was a rare feat.
In busy times, he traveled for about half the year to compete in horse shows or to give jumping clinics, where he signed autographs and stopped to offer advice to even the youngest riders. He rode on his clients’ private jets and enjoyed Champagne toasts after jumping horses to victory.
It was a phenomenal life for an Irish immigrant who started out riding an uncooperative donkey named Fred he had bought from a neighbor. No one expected it to take a sudden turn.
As Marielle Babington called out to her parents from the riding ring on that February day, her father was no longer able to run beside her, no longer able to hop into the ring to show her how it is done.
Kevin Babington watched his daughter from his wheelchair.
In August, he was riding in the Hampton Classic, the prestigious horse show, when he was flung from Shorapur, his horse. In what he called “kind of a freak accident,” he hit the ground headfirst and severely bruised his spinal cord. He is paralyzed from the chest down.
The story of his great career could have ended there. It didn’t.
In the nearly eight months since the accident, Babington has endured inescapable pain and a loss of independence. But he has resolved to heal and has risen to the challenge of not only carrying on, but of passing on his legacy.
He coaches from his wheelchair. He watches his daughters compete at live events, sometimes through streams on his laptop. He spends hours in the gym fighting for a chance to walk again.
In his corner of the equestrian world, he earned the nickname Superman, for once bounding across two riding rings to save a horse who had fallen.
But now the horses are saving him.
Grace in the Saddle
Atop a horse jumping more than five feet high, Kevin Babington leaned into the animal’s neck and became one with it.
Together on the Grand Prix circuit, they soared over fences bookended by flower arrangements so beautiful they were surely plucked from an English garden. Ringside spectators looked on from white-clothed tables that could cost $50,000. Ads for sponsors like Hermès, Rolex and Jaguar catered to those who could afford the wildly expensive sport best suited for multimillionaires.
Babington, slim with dark hair, competed in a fitted blazer, shirt and tie, and breeches straight out of a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. He is an animal lover who once helped save a goldfish by giving it shots of antibiotics. He considers his horses to be the real stars. They looked the part, too, with glistening coats and tails braided with precision.
“Watching him ride took your breath away,” said Dianna Babington, a trainer and rider who met Kevin at a horse show in 1990. She had seen him on a mount and stopped to stare, his green eyes glistening under his velvet helmet.
Kevin Babington’s elegance made a complicated sport based on speed and accuracy look deceptively safe. One awkward shift in balance or a miscalculation in the number of strides between jumps, and it could all go wrong, fast.
There is always the possibility of falling when riding an animal with its own will, even for athletes with exquisite skills like Babington, though it’s rare that devastating consequences follow. A horse can trip, stop short or even topple onto a rider. Babington, though, said he never considered the sport dangerous.
He has fallen and broken his shoulders, collarbones, fingers and nose, and once separated his pelvis. None of that prompted him to wear a safety vest, which has gained in popularity since his injury. The vest has a cord that attaches to the saddle and triggers the vest to inflate when a rider falls, sort of like a car’s airbag.
So there was nothing to cushion Babington’s fall on Aug. 30 when his feisty and winning mare, whose barn name is Vera, crashed into a jump at the Hampton Classic, catapulting him from his saddle. Vera’s feet got tangled in the jump’s top rail. Babington would never blame her, he said, because a shadow made her jump too early.
John Brennan, a fellow Irishman and trainer, rushed into the ring to attend to his old friend. The two had immigrated to the United States together as teenagers more than 30 years ago.
Babington told him: “I can’t move. I can’t feel anything.”
And then: “How’s Vera? I hope she’s not hurt.”
Gwyneth Babington, a top junior rider with college scholarship offers, slept in the hallway at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan for 17 days, reading medical studies and clinical trial reports, hoping to learn how the family should tackle her father’s recovery.
Her father needed a five-hour operation to stabilize his neck. For weeks he was on a ventilator and a feeding tube.
“I really screwed up this time,’’ he told Gwyneth, 16 then, the first time he saw her.
Doctors told the Babingtons that full recovery was unlikely. But Gwyneth was sure Superman could fight this.
“To a lot of people, dealing with a spinal cord injury is just supporting people in their new lifestyle, but I’m like, no, this isn’t hospice,” Gwyneth said. “My dad is just so lovable and kind. No one deserves this, but he really doesn’t deserve this. I want to make sure his quality of life is good and that he lives the happiest life he can, but I honestly believe he will walk again.”
When Gwyneth and Marielle were younger, they followed their easygoing father around like sidekicks. They sat on his lap when he drove the tractor and helped him groom the horses. They joined him in the truck when he traveled to horse shows, and flew with him to competitions in Europe.
Gwyneth has her father’s competitiveness. Marielle has his love of animals, which leads her to be the first in the barn and the last one out, helping the staff with the horses. The girls are bright and independent, and enrolled in online school so they can compete in both show jumping and equitation, a division in which riders are judged on their form.
More than once, Marielle begged her father, “Tell us about the Olympics.”
And Gwyneth asked, “What’s it like to jump in front of so many people under the lights?”
Kevin Babington feels guilty that his girls cannot see him compete anymore. “I think it’s been hard on them because my competitions were a big part of my family life and my business,” he said.
In turn, his daughters are more concerned about him. Within weeks of the accident, at their father’s encouragement, they were in the ring competing. Neither considers the sport any more dangerous now, and both said they would wear safety vests once ones were made for them. They agreed with their mother when she said, “I think if the girls weren’t riding, it’d be very hard for Kevin.”
At her first show back, Marielle jumped a horse she never had ridden in competition, which took guts and skill, because she so badly wanted to represent her dad.
Gwyneth traveled on her own by train from their main farm, in New Jersey, to shows, including one in Maryland where she logged a first-place finish. She flew on a private plane to another show, in Kentucky, after one rider’s family offered her a seat.
As her father watched Gwyneth competitions streamed live on the internet, she felt compelled to be perfect for him.
“I needed to be around horses,” she said. “I was doing what he couldn’t, and I think that made him happy.”
But even the toughest Babingtons crack sometimes. One night in January, at the Winter Equestrian Festival, a three-month series of horse shows in Wellington, Fla., Gwyneth was pushing her father’s wheelchair into a social event where partygoers kept telling him they were relieved he was off the ventilator, adding, “Thank God you made it” and “How do you think you’ll keep the business going?”
Gwyneth could feel the hot tears rolling down her cheeks, but turned away to wipe them so her father couldn’t see.
‘Good for the Soul’
Three months after the accident, Kevin Babington was back at his Florida farm, teaching riding lessons and training horses.
“Relax your lower back,” he told one rider who was in the ring, about 20 feet from his screened-in back porch, where he sat in his wheelchair. He spoke to his students through wireless headsets.
“You’ll always have a horse that’s ready to go slightly left or slightly right, and you have to be ready for that,” he said softly, his voice weakened because the injury weakened his diaphragm.
Superman had returned, but he was not invincible. On this day in January, he was battling exhaustion after trying a new mix of pain medications. His wife took over the session when he nodded off.
Finding manageable ways to combat the pain is challenging. His chest and shoulders are so tight that the pressure is nearly unbearable. Spasms cause his feet to flinch and intense pain to shoot into his upper body. Parts of his body freeze sometimes.
“It feels like your rib is trying to break out of your chest,” he said.
As he explained that the pain was nearly constant, he hid his discomfort. His family and close friends say he never complains.
Remaining positive is important to recovery, and the atmosphere around Babington has helped. His family goes out of its way to make it so: A framed poster from the 2014 Hampton Classic, the year Babington won the Grand Prix, was taken off the dining room wall because no one wanted yet another reminder of their worst day.
While Babington is teaching, his wife or daughters stop by to kiss him on the cheek. One of his Australian shepherds, Delilah, jumps onto his lap to lick his face. His favorite horse, Mark Q — Babington calls him “more intelligent than any horse I’ve ever known” — pokes his head out of his stall next to the ring. From the porch, Babington can see him.
“It’s good for the soul to be around the sport and the horses, but to lose your livelihood overnight,” Babington said, before pausing, “it’s hard to handle.”
The family income has plummeted because a big part of Babington’s livelihood came from his prize money and his clinics. His barn was once filled with more than 30 horses, but most of his clients have left for other trainers.
Hayley Carlson is one rider who stayed. She also took turns at Babington’s bedside during his hospital and rehabilitation stays, where he was never left alone.
“Why would anyone leave a trainer who knows so much and can communicate it?” Carlson said. “It’s the industry’s best-kept secret because Kevin’s a genius and he’s more available now that he’s not riding.”
When Babington can’t coach, his wife, Dianna, steps in. Her days are complicated.
She is a sharp-minded, energetic, Type A, former corporate lawyer, and she can do a lot — train horses, pay bills, handle insurance claims, coordinate house renovations to accommodate her husband’s wheelchair, talk to doctors about his care and clinical trials, coach their daughters and clients at competitions — yet sometimes she feels helpless.
She has no medical training, and for months worried that something terrible would happen to her husband on her watch. It haunted her that Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in films, was paralyzed in a horse-jumping fall and eventually died of complications from an infection caused by a pressure wound.
“Every day I wake up in our bedroom that I used to love so much, look over at Kevin in his hospital bed and say, ‘Is this really happening?’” Dianna said. “I just can’t get my head around this new normal.”
One day her husband might feel fine. The next, he might be up all night with a fever, or with dangerously low blood pressure. One day he might be able to lift his right hand and move his fingers. But the next day there’s no movement at all.
Dianna tries not to let the roller coaster distract her from keeping the family business afloat — they own a bedding and feed company, too — and her daughters are concerned that it’s too much.
“Sometimes it’s like I’m being tossed around by a wave and I don’t know which way is up or what I’m doing or how to rebuild,” she said. “But I can’t give up. I can’t do that to my girls. I can’t do that to Kevin, who is remarkably tolerant and optimistic.”
Yet she can’t escape reminders of their life before the accident.
Their barn is no longer packed with young investment horses. One by one, they were sold or leased to other trainers. A few top horses were kept, including Vera, who retired after the accident. Dianna doesn’t fault her, but she can’t bear to look at her.
Mark Q is still in the barn. For a long time, Babington and Q were a winning pair. When Babington was in rehab at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey, Q visited him and nuzzled his face. If not for the accident, Babington would still be riding Q. But Q is Gwyneth’s horse now.
“If he had stepped down and passed the torch to her, it would’ve been a really joyous moment,” Dianna Babington said, referring to Kevin as she wiped away tears. “I just didn’t think she’d be riding Q so soon. I think he’s had to wrap his head around this, too.”
The Sport Rallies Around Him
Kevin Babington, the youngest of 11 and the son of a wool merchant from County Tipperary, Ireland, was 18 when he came to the United States with $300 in his pocket.
He rose in the sport to work under Frank and Mary Mairs Chapot, American equestrian royalty. Frank Chapot rode in six Olympics and coached the U.S. show jumping team for six more. But Babington said it was riding a horse named Carling King, a headstrong Irish-bred gelding, and finishing fourth with him at the 2004 Olympics that “finally put me on the map.” One rider on the current Irish team said Babington was “a big part of the Irish equestrian history.”
That success didn’t stop him from learning. That’s partly what has endeared him to others.
Babington is reserved, but was never shy about asking for opinions about courses or technique, and he taught other Grand Prix riders, as well as beginners. He waived his fee for young riders who could not afford it.
“So many people at his level, they feel like they’re above all that, but not Kevin,” Brennan, his close friend from Ireland, said. “He’s the same guy now as he was the day we stepped off the plane.”
Nancy Wallis, a trainer and course designer who met the Babingtons before they married, said: “The horse world is a competitive business, and people will talk bad about people. But I don’t ever remember anyone ever saying anything bad about Kevin. And Kevin never said anything bad about anyone else. Not once.”
Which might be why his sport has rallied around him as he faces what the Babingtons understand will be “a $5 million problem.”
Within two weeks of the accident, Sissy Wickes, a trainer and competition judge, raised more than $500,000 for him from 4,859 donors. One GoFundMe campaign has collected nearly $164,000. A horse farm in Ireland auctioned off a stallion, raising $45,000. A drag queen contest, starring riders and trainers, collected $200,000. (The guy dressed as Madonna won.)
The wealth in the sport has boosted the level of support, and Babington is so grateful: Two riders individually lent him planes so he could travel to medical facilities, including the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he is a part of a stem cell study.
The fund-raisers, which include the sale of small items like hair bows, belts and “Babington Strong” armbands, might help him do what so many others with spinal-cord injuries have not: recover.
The odds for a full recovery are against him, but significant recovery is possible with a strong will and a lot of money, some experts say.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Babington exercised three hours a day, five days a week, at Center for Neuro Recovery, a specialized gym in North Palm Beach, Fla. He paid for it himself, he said, because his insurance provided limited coverage. The workouts, led by exercise physiologists, included stretching and strength training. A robotic machine let Babington take steps again, reminding him how to walk.
With that gym closed temporarily, Babington visits a hyperbaric chamber five times a week, and said that the treatment had improved his breathing and strengthened his voice.
“I have times when I’m down or depressed because of the situation, but I probably keep them to myself a bit,” he said. “Listen, I could’ve had a brain injury, so I’m grateful for that. But I still believe that I can walk again. I have to believe that.”
He added: “They say a body can heal a millimeter a day. I just have to have patience.”
There is hope.
In February, Babington felt a twinge in his right thigh and was thrilled because he had felt similar twinges in his hands before he could move them. He now feels twinges in both legs, and has felt a burning sensation in his left foot.
“Five years ago, if you didn’t regain function within the first six months, you were going to be stuck with what you’re stuck with, but fortunately that’s no longer the case,” said Chet Moritz, a University of Washington neuroscientist who studies how to improve the rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injuries. “Those who can afford to privately pay continue to get better.”
As Babington waits to see how much his body can bounce back, he does what he can to stay connected to the world he once dominated. Some in his sport make sure he remains included.
Juan Pablo Gnecco, a Grand Prix rider, asked Babington to help evaluate more than 100 horses for an auction in February, where 17 horses, including one whose proceeds would go to Babington’s foundation, were offered for sale. Babington watched video of the horses jumping and sent Gnecco a half-page write-up on each one. “Really like this horse,” he said about one chestnut 5-year-old. “Technique changes a little from jump to jump, but I don’t mind because it’s an effort to be careful.”
When Gnecco received the pages, he choked up. Each evaluation was written in neat penmanship. Gwyneth had submitted them. Day after day, for hours upon hours, she had transcribed her father’s words onto paper because he could not.
Under the Lights
Nothing makes Kevin Babington happier than watching his girls compete.
For weeks, his barn manager and head groom, Elizabeth Sponseller, drove him to the nearby Winter Equestrian Festival and pushed his wheelchair through the showground, past dozens of well-wishers, so he could coach his clients and daughters. But on one Saturday in February, he wasn’t feeling well enough to travel.
It was a big night at the horse show, the night of the annual Great Charity Challenge, and the V.I.P. seating area was teeming with fans. Last year, Gwyneth and Kevin Babington were teammates.
It was Gwyneth’s first time jumping Mark Q under the lights, and her father found a way to be at her side. As she warmed up, he was on the phone with Marielle, giving her coaching tips to pass along to her sister.
Marielle, phone in hand, shouted to Gwyneth: “Dad is giving you important information! Come over here so the other people don’t know what he’s saying!”
Babington told his daughter to temper her excitement. Don’t take too long to get to that second jump. Relax. Stay focused. And: “You can do this.”
Gwyneth soaked it in.
Kevin Babington, at home in his wheelchair, watched the event on his laptop and was so proud.
He cheered Mark Q’s every landing.