By Troy Anna Smith
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
When Irish Olympian and grand prix show jumper Kevin Babington suffered a life-altering accident at the Hampton Classic Horse Show in Long Island, New York, wife and business partner Dianna Babington suddenly found herself coping and balancing a new lifestyle as best she knows how. “I’m a fixer by nature,” she said. “I think I’m doing remarkably well considering my personality works against the situation.”
Aboard the 14-year-old mare Shorapur, Kevin crashed in a triple combination. Since the tragic incident that resulted in a spinal cord injury causing paralysis from his shoulders down, Kevin has received spinal stabilization surgery at New York University Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. He continues to recover in Wellington, Florida, where he receives physical therapy five days a week.
Dianna quickly admitted it’s hard for her to sit passively by. “The best way I can describe it is I felt like a wolf watching its mate caught in a snare, circling and circling and thinking, I don’t know how to fix this,” she said. “All you can do is try to get the best medical help, try to keep the kids sane, try to keep the business running, keep all the balls in the air. Rise to the occasion, or you drown.”
Raised in Neshanic, New Jersey, Dianna found herself riding dirt bikes at age 6 with the boys on the block before she found her love for horses. “I was wild, brave as a lion,” Dianna said. “I would have to let the bike tilt in order to catch myself; I was so little I couldn’t put my feet down.”
Horseback riding followed shortly after at Four Seasons Farm in Flemington, New Jersey, with Joellen Washburn and Gary Kunsman, and the sport quickly captured Dianna’s heart. Soon after, her parents’ divorce made it hard to keep up but never held her back. “I worked in barns and rode anything I could sit on. Nothing was handed to me, and I figured it out,” Dianna said.
After a broken engagement in college, Dianna purchased a horse as therapy, and met Kevin a year later. She remembers the date instantly: June 17, 1990. “He was tan, and he had green eyes. He had this black velvet cap and drove a red pick-up truck. I said, ‘Who is that? Is he single?!’” It just took Kevin one grand gesture to win Dianna over. “He invited me to see Gem Twist — and that was it. That was his in!” she laughed.
Soon after, Dianna began at Babington LLC as the original employee. Up at 3 a.m. to prepare foxhunters for sale, feed or exercise horses, Dianna did it all. “You know when you’re young, you can get up at 3 a.m. and work till 10 p.m., then go to dinner every night. It was fun times!”
Dianna and Kevin have been working side-by-side for 30 years, and though Kevin’s international stardom has often overshadowed Dianna, she has been a successful trainer in her own right, qualifying her own students for Pony Finals and equitation and jumper finals. Additionally, Dianna has walked Olympic-level courses alongside Kevin, trained top clientele and ridden in world-class arenas. Now, she’s using all her skills and experience to keep the business running — with Kevin sidelined, remaining in his shadow is not an option.
Their time entrenched in the equestrian community built the Babingtons a support system. “It’s an odd feeling for something so terrible to happen, and to feel so blessed at the same time,” Dianna said, reacting to the multiple fundraisers and benefits that have been started by close friends and supporters, including The Kevin Babington Foundation, founded by Missy Clark, John Brennan, Shane Sweetnam, Colm Mcguckian, Darragh Kerins, Maarten Huygens and Jack Morgan. Donations to the foundation are used to not only help with Kevin’s medical expenses, but to provide funding toward rehabilitation and education toward spinal cord injuries. “My sincerest hope is that Kevin will recover and the equipment purchased along with the Foundation will go on to help the next person,” Dianna said.
Dianna is quick to remember those who surrounded the family right after the accident, as well as the equestrian community that continues to show love and support during the course of Kevin’s recovery. Since the Foundation money is strictly used for medical costs per its 501(c)(3) status, the Babington Family Trust was also established to help benefit not only Kevin’s medical but personal costs as well as Dianna and their two daughters, Gwyneth and Marielle.
New Jersey professional colleague and close friend Nancy Wallis spent the months following the accident supporting Babington LLC in any way possible. “I was supposed to go to Seattle that next week,” she said. “I just couldn’t leave. I wanted to be close. Whatever they needed — teach lessons, ride horses or bring morale up. That entire fall I just wanted to be there for them.”
“Everyone has been incredibly supportive,” Missy Clark said. “The accident hit everybody. Here is an Olympic rider, and it happened to him; it can happen to anyone. The response has been tremendous.”
Dianna aspires to bring a new awareness to equine safety and erase any stigma that comes with wearing protection on horseback. “When we see riders in vests, we think they must not ride well enough, or they probably will fall,” Dianna said. “Everyone falls; why would we not protect ourselves? If Kevin could do it again, he would have worn a safety vest.”
Dianna goes on to list a number of top professionals who have encountered major injuries on horseback without protective gear. “Debbie Stevens, Nick Skelton, Carol Thompson … and if they make protective vests mandatory, I’ll be the first person behind it.”
Missy agrees and has made it her goal to encourage riders, especially juniors, to wear vests for safety, and wants to raise awareness in the sport. “Making protective vests mandatory is a viable discussion to be had,” she said. “Martin Fuchs is always wearing one — it’s out there and people are starting to notice!”
Bravery Alongside Grief
Though their business model is changing, Dianna feels comfortable stepping up and taking students to shows like she has in the past: Nothing has changed with the exception of Kevin’s inability to ride and show. “Kevin was in the 1 percent as a rider: He could ride anything, and a lot of our business was based on his pure talent in the saddle. But he’s also a brilliant teacher,” she explained. “He doesn’t have a brain injury; once he feels better, he will continue to teach. He really enjoys the opportunity to teach because it’s mentally riding for him, to think through what the students and horses are doing.”
Kevin and Dianna keep working in order to survive emotionally and financially. “I have a CDL, I ride and I train — there’s nothing I can’t do,” Dianna said. “We are still a team, but we’re working through the details. We’re rebuilding as we navigate Kevin’s recovery process.”
Kevin has been selected as one of a dozen patients for a stem cell research trial at the Mayo Clinic this year. The trial could help repair the injury by using stem cells injected into the spinal cord. Researchers selected Kevin for this trial because of his “mental fortitude of an Olympic athlete.” In the meantime, health professionals are continuing to work on his body strengthening, physical therapy and pain management.
There’s no question the equestrian community is behind the beloved and talented Kevin Babington as everyone awaits his return to the ring, in whatever capacity his body allows. “There’s always going to be more that he can do, and pass along to the horse world,” Nancy said. “He sure can teach a good lesson.”
Dianna also refuses to give up. She is the fire behind it all.
“Dianna has had to step up to the plate,” Missy said. “Who is prepared for that? Nobody. She just keeps ticking along. She’s been trying her best and she’s very resourceful. She’s amazing.”
To support the Kevin Babington Foundation, email email@example.com.
Those wishing to support the family directly can send mail to: The Babington Family Trust, PO BOX 771, Gwynedd PA 19437.