This week’s episode of the Practical Horseman Podcast is with Irish show jumping star Kevin Babington. The youngest of 11 children and the son of a politician/wool merchant, Kevin began riding in his native Ireland at age 11 where he foxhunted and participated in Pony Club before training with Irish show-jumping legend Iris Kellett and earning his British Horse Society instructor accreditation. Kevin later moved to the United States, where he worked for Frank and Mary Chapot for several years before striking out on his own.
In 2000, one of Kevin’s students, amateur jumper Saly Glassman, gave him the opportunity to ride thephenomenal Irish Sport Horse gelding Carling King. The pair went on to represent Ireland in numerous international competitions earning, among many other honors, 12 Nations Cup team wins, victory in the La Baule Grand Prix in France and the King George Cup Grand Prix in Hickstead, England (both of which Kevin names as his fondest wins), individual eighth place at the 2002 World Equestrian Games and individual fourth place at the 2004 Olympics Games.
Now based at Kevin Babington LLC in Allentown, New Jersey, Kevin continues to train and compete at the highest level of show jumping. In fact, he had an incredibly successful spring and summer, racking up wins across the East with his string of horses. He won the CSI3* Assante Classic at the International Bromont a couple of weeks ago with his biggest star at the moment, the 14-year-old, Hanoverian mare Shorapur. Perhaps most notably, he made history at the Lake Placid Horse Show in July, sweeping the top three places in the $100,000Great American Insurance Group Grand Prix, placing first with Shorapur, second with his up-and-coming 11-year-old, Irish Sport Horse gelding Super Chilled, and third with the 17-year-old, Irish Sport Horse gelding Mark Q, his longtime partner and one of his all-time favorite horses.
Kevin has a real passion for teaching and also says one of his favorite aspects of the sport is the training—believing in a horse, working hard to strengthen and improve him and then seeing how he develops. Kevin did a training story with Practical Horseman in February 2012 on how to improve your horse’s power and technique over fences. And keep an eye out for Kevin’s story in our upcoming fall issue in which he explains how to stop your jumper from rushing to the fences.
You can listen to the full interview wherever you listen to podcasts, but in the meantime, below is a snippet of our conversation which spans from Kevin’s early years riding in Ireland, to what it was like working for Frank and Mary Chapot, some of his favorite horses, what qualities he values in a show jumper and why he loves teaching and training.
Why do you think you’ve been so successful?
KB: I think the main reason is I’m very passionate about the sport. I really love horses and I really enjoy what I’m doing. In this sport there’s a lot of ups and downs and I think you have to be able to push through the downs, like when you’re riding horses that you know aren’t good enough. If you just keep your head up and keep pushing, the good horses will come along. I think in my career I’ve had some very good horses and I’ve had some that kept going to shows that weren’t so good, and just by perseverance the good horses come along.
What is it about horses that drew you in to riding?
KB: As I kid I was animal crazy. I had all sorts of pets, even more than my parents knew. I had a mini zoo at home. I had rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, turtles, tortoises—you name it. Every penny I could save, I bought pets with. So it sort of followed suit that once I got involved in some riding lessons, that I fell in love with riding. So it’s all to do with a love of animals.
Can you tell us a little bit about how your riding progressed in Ireland and how you decided to get into the sport of show jumping?
KB: When I was riding in Tipperary (which is where I’m from), in my teenage years I was involved in Pony Club and I loved eventing. I really, really liked eventing. I galloped some racehorses for a very good local trainer. I liked the racing. I thought maybe that was the direction I would go. I loved steeplechasing. I never got a license, but it was something I thought about.
I figured I wanted to make a living from horses but I never thought I could make a living from show jumping. We had Eddie Macken and Paul Darragh and they had their stables up near Dublin and they were sponsored by cigarette companies and things like that, but I didn’t quite know how they made a living. So, I had applied to go to the Irish National Stud to do stud and stable husbandry went I left high school. I thought I’d get into the Thoroughbred industry and when I went for the interview, I was told, “Look, we can’t take you the first year but if do the Irish Certificate of Equitation Science, we’ll take you next year.”
Iris Kellett, who is a famous trainer in Ireland, and great, great horse lady, trained Eddie Macken and Paul Darragh and all the top riders. She ran the Irish Certificate of Equitation Science, so I applied there and actually the year I applied, they changed it from the Irish Certificate of Equitation Science to the BHSAI [British Horse Society Assistant Instructor] and one the reasons I wanted to do that course was there was a lot of accountancy in it, something I was sort of thinking if I didn’t get into horses maybe I would do. Obviously, I was around all these top show jumping riders and they said I was good at it and kind of held my own, so that’s when I became really passionate about show jumping and realized that maybe I was good enough to make a career out of it. I was just turning 18 at the time.
What do you think makes a good show jumper? What kind of qualities do you value?
KB: They have to be brave. They have to want to do it. It takes a brave horse to canter down to a 1.50m, 1.60m jump. Careful is very important. So, it’s trying to find that combination of careful and brave. The next trait I’d look for is rideability. They can be careful, and they can be brave, but they can be very difficult to ride. I always say you can be missing one ingredient, but you can’t be missing two. If they’re brave and careful and scopey, you can deal with a little lack of rideability.
Like Shorapur is by no means the easiest horse to ride, but she is brave and she is careful and she has enough scope. Mark Q isn’t as careful as Shorapur, but he’s more straightforward—he wouldn’t be the easiest to ride—but he’s more straightforward than Shorapur to get to the jumps. And he’s scopey and he’s careful enough where there’s places where you just have to give a little more time to a jump. Super Chilled is scopey and he is careful, but he lacked a little blood. He was a little on the colder side but he’s coming into that now, he’s coming into more blood. So that’s rideability. They have to be taking you to the jump. If you’re creating all the time—the sport is so technical now and the jumps come up so quick now, they have to be self-motivated to jump the course. You don’t have the time to be creating all that energy. So with that horse, I’ve been working on that and it’s definitely getting better.
Do you get nervous before a competition and if so, how do you handle it?
KB: I think if you ask my grooms, they’d say I don’t get nervous. I’ve definitely had shows where I’m jittery, for sure. I didn’t think I was nervous at the Olympics, but my brother-in-law was with me over there and he said, “You were definitely nervous—you didn’t say a word for two days?” That’s my way of maybe getting a little bit nervous is I go quiet.
And it really depends on the horse you’re riding. If you know your horse is capable of going in and jumping a good round, you learn that it’s not the end of the world if you have a rail down. The older you get the more you realize there’s much more important things in life than jumping a clean round. You always go in and try your best. Sometimes you go in and you hit three rails really hard and they all stay in the cups, and other days you go in and have the lightest rub and the jump falls down. That’s show jumping. You have to take it in stride and not go into a deep depression when you’ve had a couple of bad rounds and not to get too high on your horse when you have a couple of good wins because this sport will knock you right back on your hocks. You have to enjoy the wins obviously, otherwise why would you do it? But you can’t be too hard on yourself when it doesn’t go well because you’re dealing with two living creatures and you have no idea how [the horse] is going to wake up in the morning.
What’s your favorite part of the sport? And the part that’s the hardest for you?
KB: I love the training end of it. You’re only in the ring for a minute and half or a minute and there’s a lot of buildup to that. I love taking a horse that is maybe a little weak and believing in him and then seeing him six months down the road and he’s completely changed. You knew you spotted something in the horse and you make him a better horse. I really enjoy that end of it.
I love competition. I love to win. I love to be in the ring. Being Irish, I have a lot of Irish friends that are involved in the sport and I enjoy spending time with them at the horse shows and I have lots of American friends and friends from all over. I don’t have many friends when I’m not at a show, but I do have plenty when I’m at a show.
The hard thing about the sport—the frustrating thing about the sport—is the cost of competing is just ridiculous, it’s gone just out of control. So I think it keeps a lot of good riders away from the sport and the cost of horses has become ridiculous. You go to a show and look outside the ring and you see so many top riders that are standing there, helping other people in the ring, but they’re not riding. That’s part of the business and that’s part of the sport, and I guess we can’t complain if we have good clients that can afford to do it, but it is hard to see that so many good riders are either forced to sell their horses once they get to a certain level, or they can’t afford to buy them in the first place. So I’d say if I had to pick something to complain about, that’s what I would pick, but the sport is healthy. Look at the shows, all the good shows are packed, the footing is better, the course design is better, there’s so many things that have improved so much even since I came to this country, so many positive things, but the negative is the cost.
About the Practical Horseman Podcast
The Practical Horseman Podcast, which runs every other Friday, features conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform, educate and inspire. It is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors Sandy Oliynyk, Emily Daily and Jocelyn Pierce. Upcoming episodes are with eventing legend and Prac columnist, Jim Wofford, hunter rider and trainer Tom Brennan and show jumper and humanitarian Georgina Bloomberg.
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