By Lilly Steger
Portraits by Pam Jensen
McKenzie Cumbea is plucky and upbeat, and possesses the gutsy confidence that gets eventers into the startbox. “Fake your confidence if you have to,” she advised.
A Connecticut native, McKenzie grew up riding with her sisters at a local hunter-jumper barn and fell in love with horses. She took every riding opportunity she could and developed a repertoire riding off-the-track Thoroughbreds. When she was a teenager, she started riding with Amie Kersey Loring, an eventing trainer.
“That was my first time seeing a functioning event farm,” McKenzie said. “It was such a milestone for me because that’s where I learned I could be a working student.” Growing up in New England, McKenzie didn’t realize how expansive the horse world was.
“I just thought Pony Club and local shows were the end-all-be-all,” she said. “I had all the Burghley, Badminton and Rolex videos, but I thought that was a one-in-a-million thing. I just didn’t realize normal people were doing that.”
That was when McKenzie decided riding was something she could do professionally. Amie put her in contact with Mark Weissbecker, an eventer who had competed at the Kentucky Three-Day CCI5* and the Burghley CCI5*, represented the United States at the European Eventing Championships and was short-listed for the 1996 Olympic team in Atlanta. “I went and interviewed and I totally found my place. It was where I wanted to be,” McKenzie said of her time with Mark. “The only reason I left was because I met the man who is now my husband.”
While wintering with Mark and his team in North Carolina, Zach, her now-husband, was living in an apartment at the farm. Despite living on a horse farm, he knew nothing about horses.
McKenzie stayed in the south and married Zach, but not long after, she took a sabbatical from riding. “I went to school and I waited tables and I absolutely hated it,” she laughed. “That made me realize, ‘OK, I guess I should ride.’”
It took a year for her to get back in the saddle. She found a job riding and launched her business. “It was really scary,” McKenzie said. “Not that I was making a killing at the restaurant, but it was steady, and it was somebody else’s responsibility. I realized I just had to commit.”
McKenzie and Zach purchased a tiny house and farm on seven acres to run the business and named it Morning Line Farm. That’s when McKenzie found Reggie.
McKenzie had been on the lookout for a horse to compete and found an OTTB at the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center in Lexington, Kentucky, who was available. McKenzie and her sister took a trip to see him. Halfway through the drive, she learned he had a suspensory injury. “We were in West Virginia and we almost turned around,” she said.
But they kept driving, and when McKenzie saw him, she thought he was beautiful. “He’s just this plain brown horse, but I thought he was incredible,” she gushed. “I saw him moving and I thought, Ugh, I like this horse! Someone said I should hop on, so I did! And it was fabulous, and I was like, ‘This is awful, right?’
“We went back the next day and he had lost his shoe. I rode him again and he stopped at a crossrail in the arena. I said, ‘This horse is a hunk of junk.’ I think he heard me, because then he started being perfect.” The suspensory was a big problem, so McKenzie returned to North Carolina uncertain, but she couldn’t get Reggie out of her head. She ended up taking the risk and shipped him to North Carolina.
The first few months, she treated Reggie like he was still in rehab. They were meticulous about footing and she iced his leg constantly. Slowly, she started to up the ante and he stayed sound. When they began jumping, she realized what an incredible horse he was.
McKenzie entered Reggie in his first event when he was 4. “He just went up the levels no problem,” she said. “I’ve never sat on a horse where everything was so easy. Reggie was the first time I could really get around and show that I can do this.”
At 9, Reggie ran his first Advanced. “He is so amazing on cross-country. He reads questions so well and he can jump a huge table all day long.”
Competing at the FEI level is something that seems out of reach for many riders. “Once you do it, it seems much more obtainable. I remember doing clinics with trainers who were 3* or 4* riders and just thinking they were a god or a goddess. You learn that they’re normal people who have worked really hard and have a good feel. You realize that if you aren’t afraid to get up every morning and work, you can do it too.”
Reggie opened the doors for McKenzie to continue her career at the upper levels. Together, they have competed at the Fair Hill CCI4*, the Great Meadow CCI4*, the Jersey Fresh CCI4* and the Pine Top Advanced Horse Trials with a top 10 finish. “I’m so grateful to Reggie. Because of what he’s given me, I’ve got a couple of young ones I know I can do it with, too. You have to get past that first horse,” she said. “For me, it was special because it was a horse I started. I trust them the most because I know everything about them, and they know everything about me.”
Building the Business
Soon after she bought Reggie, McKenzie and Zach upgraded to a 22-acre farm with a 6-stall barn. Her partnership with Reggie was growing and after so many years of riding OTTBs, she had steady business pulling horses off the track and training and selling them. “I have a knack for it and I’m good at choosing a horse, putting their first few months on them and making them into something anyone can ride,” she said. With a few clients and boarders, the barn was full, and the business was growing.
In February 2020, they stumbled onto a massive 85-acre farm with a 30-stall barn in Aberdeen, North Carolina, on Zillow. “I never thought we would outgrow 22 acres after we came from seven, but we were able to sell our place just as COVID was hitting and get the move done. It all worked out so beautifully,” McKenzie said.
While the world was shutting down, McKenzie and Zach were transforming their new property. “We feel lucky that the owner before us rehabbed the ground. We put concrete in the aisles, matted the stalls, and graded the ring. We figured in a few years we’d be full, but it only took a couple of months.”
With her husband and four employees, the team learned how to run a smooth operation. “We’re just making improvements as we go. We’ve got a half-mile track and 30 acres of trails,” she said. “We just put in a huge Grand Prix show-jumping arena. It’s been really fast-paced.”
McKenzie has built a strong support system. Her husband; her parents, Gemmy and Joseph Day; her long-term border and barn manager, Jamie; and her other employees keep the farm running. “I’m so lucky; I have a great group of clients and a great team. Now my job is to find the balance of getting back to the FEI scene while keeping the business running.”
McKenzie has learned to juggle her life as a high-performance athlete and a business owner. “Anyone can do it, it just takes something that not everyone is willing to give, which is time and mental toughness,” she explained.
Her biggest advice is simple. “Have good morals, stick by them, and be consistent. Just do your work — people will notice if you work hard.”
For more information, visit morninglinefarm.com
Photos by www.pamjensenphotography.com