Paralysed showjumper Kevin Babington making progress in rehab

Kevin Babington at La Baule.
Kevin Babington at La Baule. © FEI / Frederic Chehu,

Irish showjumper Kevin Babington is working hard on his rehabilitation after a fall nine months ago left him paralysed from the chest down.

Kevin, 51, fell from Shorapur during the Grand Prix qualifying round at New York’s Hampton Classic Horse Show in Bridgehampton on August 30. More than $US1 million has been raised to help with medical bills, as he did not have disability insurance.

But the US-based Irish Olympian and 2001 European Jumping team gold medallist is still coaching riders from his wheelchair, wearing a headset and accompanied by his “bodyguards”, his family’s three Australian shepherds Dylan, Millie and his closest friend, three-year-old Delilah.

He loves teaching and early in 2019 had moved with his family, wife Dianna and daughters Marielle and Gwyneth, to a new facility in New Jersey, which is closer for many of his pupils and clients. The Babingtons now split their time between there and their Florida base.

But he misses riding.

“I’m working hard on my rehab and now have a good bit of movement in my right arm, almost to the point where I can manage the wheelchair with my hand, and I have twinges in my legs which the doctors call a good spasm. The C3 and C4 vertebrae affect your diaphragm, and I was on a ventilator for quite some time at the beginning. I’m off that for months now so my voice and my lungs are getting stronger.

“But it’s slow. I still have to deal with a fair amount of pain in the form of spasms, and unfortunately, the physio practice I go to has been closed because of the virus but I’m really looking forward to getting back into that. I ride a stand-bike every day to keep my muscle tone up and do lots of exercises working on my strength,” Babington says. He has also been using a hyperbaric oxygen chamber as part of his latest treatment.

Bedding and feed operations

As well as teaching, Kevin is involved in Babington Farm Mills, his company in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, that produces sustainable bedding.

The idea of the bedding came across his radar when he found some bagged product in Germany several years ago. “I got this urge to bring it to America so I did a lot of research and bought machinery in Denmark where they produce quite a lot of it,” Kevin says.

“While I was travelling I also came across different horse-feeds so I decided to create a version of forage feed myself, using grains from organic farmers. It was a big investment, but it’s a fantastic way to go for horses.”

His low-starch, low-sugar forage feed slows down intake and creates a lot more saliva which helps prevent gastric ulcers. “It’s good for the whole digestive tract because the horse takes longer to chew so it’s a buffer for ulcers. With pelleted or sweet feed they are inclined to gulp it down and you get a splashback effect,” he explains.

When it came to the bedding it took some time to refine his particular version, putting 800lb straw bales through a chopper, then running it through a hammer-mill which opens up the node of the straw and creates the soakage that sets it apart from the rest.

“Conventional straw has little soakage, but at the length we chop it then it’s like mucking out shavings,” Kevin says. “You have to start out with good quality straw with less than 10% moisture content. It’s so absorbent that it works almost like cat litter and it’s easier to find the droppings, you use a fraction of the amount of regular straw on your horse’s bed and we run it through a dust extractor so it’s really good for hypo-allergenic horses. The finished product is very clean.”

But are horses not inclined to eat their yummy bedding?

“For some reason they are less likely to eat it than long straw. When you first put a horse in on it they might nibble at it but it won’t do them any harm. The odd horse might eat it but they are grazing animals and sometimes hay gets mixed up with it, so nibbling all night is really good for them,” he points out.

And bedding has become the biggest part of the Babington Mills business now, expanding into supply for small animals like hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs: “We use a smaller chop for them — it’s a bit of a different process and they live very happily on it,” Kevin says.

A farmer at heart

“Deep down in my heart I always wanted to be a farmer! I had this great idea of buying a farm and growing my own hay and doing some wheat each year.

“We bought the farm just after the big crash in 2008 when we didn’t know what direction the horse world was going. It’s in a very remote, rural area and I’d love to be up there now, I enjoy it very much,” Kevin says.

It was close to the family home at the time and he was very involved in the running of it in the early stages, but then the horse business got busy again so he got “a bit side-tracked”. The management of Babington Mills is now in the capable hands of his sister-in-law Dawn Imperatore.

One of the aspects of the bedding production that pleases Kevin most is the fact that it is compostable. “We are surrounded by mushroom farmers and they are delighted to use it, and you can also spread it directly onto fields because it breaks down quicker than conventional straw.” It sounds like a perfect example of circular bioeconomy, using renewable natural resources in a way that pleases the environment.

The future of horse sport

The horse who put Kevin on the world stage was the Irish-bred chestnut Carling King, whom he describes as a real character, very strong but definitely the horse of a lifetime.

“We travelled the world together and my first championship was in Arnhem (in The Netherlands, where Ireland won European team gold in 2001), and my very first Nations Cup in Europe was Aachen (Germany) so I was thrown right in at the deep end!

“It went from there, we were part of the winning team in Hickstead in 2000, I got to jump Spruce Meadows (Canada) a bunch of times, to the World Championships in Jerez (Spain in 2002), to the European Championships in Donaueschingen (Germany in 2003) and Athens (2004) for the Olympics. It was an amazing five or six-year run we had together,” he recalls.

The also finished eighth individually at the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2002, 10th individually at the Europeans in 2003 and joint-fourth individually at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. They were an extraordinary partnership.

In recent years he remained prominent on the US circuit, and in early March this year, he was appointed as one of three advisors to the Horse Sport Ireland High-Performance Committee along with Taylor Vard and Cameron Hanley. With competition grinding to halt just a few weeks later he didn’t get the chance to share his expertise and wisdom, but when action resumes Kevin will undoubtedly make a great contribution to the Irish Jumping team in future years.

So how does he think equestrian sport will move on after the current pandemic?

“Unfortunately a lot of shows were already just about managing to survive and some of those may not make it through this. It will be hard, and some of the vendors and smaller sponsors will be struggling. Once things start to reopen — as long as we don’t have a second wave of the virus — the sport should bounce back, although there’ll be changes for sure.

“But we’ll get through this, it’s a bump in the road but our sport was generally in a healthy place before this happened, and it will turn the corner. Everyone wants it to.”

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