Politics & Policy

Tennessee Veterinary Board Threatens Jail Time for Giving Unlicensed Horse Massages

Martha Stowe (Photo: Beacon Center of Tennessee)
Martha Stowe and Laurie Wheeler were threatened with fines and jail time by the Tennessee Veterinary Board for practicing equine myofascial release without veterinary degrees.

A decade ago, Martha Stowe founded True Equine, an equine-services company, a few miles south of Nashville, Tenn., in Williamson County. After earning a certificate in equine myofascial release, a massage technique that releases tension and pain in a horse’s body, Martha soon acquired a large clientele. “For performance horses, this is important,” Stowe tells National Review. “You want them to have complete range of motion.”

Two years after Stowe’s business started to rake in profits, her husband, Kirk, was deployed to Iraq — and, since his return, Kirk has been out of the workforce. “I became the sole breadwinner,” Stowe says. Ultimately, it was Stowe’s decision to specialize in equine myofascial release that allowed her family of four to stay afloat during tough times.

In April 2016, however, Stowe’s well-established business was upended when she received a threatening letter from the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, a board within Tennessee’s Department of Health. Only licensed veterinarians are permitted to massage horses, the board’s attorney explained, and if Stowe continued to practice myofascial release, she could be fined up to $500 and receive a six-month jail sentence.

“I was terrified,” Stowe says. “I didn’t do any myofascial from the day I received the letter until about June, but then I realized there was no way we could pay our bills if I didn’t do it.” So, she resumed her occupation, aware that at any point she could be arrested.

Stowe wasn’t alone.

The board also sent the letter to fellow Williamson County resident Laurie Wheeler, a professional jazz musician and licensed massage therapist who, like Stowe, is certified in equine myofascial release. Wheeler had treated horses — on a volunteer basis — for years. She began doing so after witnessing the positive effect myofascial release had on her horse, Jazz. “I would see horses in need and I would treat them,” she says.

Upon receiving the veterinary board’s letter, Wheeler was stunned — after all, she was certified, and not only that, she had never even accepted money for her services. But, she says, the government threatened to “fine me and put me in jail for voluntarily working on animals.” For Wheeler, helping horses is more than a volunteer position or an occupation; it’s a call to duty.

Like Stowe, Wheeler stopped massaging horses once she received the board’s letter. But, a few months later, when she witnessed a horse in need after an impaction formed in his intestines, she felt she had to act, regardless of the potential consequences. “I didn’t care. I put my hands on [the horse’s] belly for a while, maybe three to four hours, and he passed his impaction that night,” she says. “If I’m needed, I go. Period.”

Both women disregarded the veterinary board’s warnings and subsequently looked to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank, for legal representation. According to Braden Boucek, director of litigation for the Beacon Center, the board’s decision to allow only licensed veterinarians to massage horses is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause.

Moreover, because the Constitution protects private property, which in turn protects the right to acquire property and the right to earn a living, the board’s decision violates the 14th Amendment. The board is prohibiting Stowe from practicing the skills that she relies on to earn a living, says Boucek.

“The list of things you can do legally to animals without a veterinary degree,” Boucek says, “includes castration, dehorning, artificial insemination, and transplanting a frozen embryo.” Boucek argues that by allowing people who are not licensed veterinarians to perform these procedures but prohibiting them from massaging horses, the board is depriving them of equal protection under the law.

‘The real kicker is that veterinary schools aren’t required to teach animal massage as part of the curriculum.’ — Braden Boucek

“The real kicker,” he adds, “is that veterinary schools aren’t required to teach animal massage as part of the curriculum.” Which is to say that the board’s requirement that persons hold a veterinary degree in order to massage a horse is fundamentally silly — because students wouldn’t learn the skills in veterinary school that they would in an equine-myofascial-release certificate program.

What’s more, both Stowe and Wheeler have collaborated with veterinarians in Williamson County, and the veterinarians value their feedback. “I am an asset to them,” Stowe says, “because I have hands on the horses at least an hour at a time.”

The State of Tennessee has a statute on the books defining the practice of veterinary medicine to include “acupuncture, chiropractic therapy, laser therapy, massage therapy, veterinary rehabilitative therapy, and ultrasound.” So, in an effort to avoid filing a lawsuit, the Beacon Center gave the veterinary board until Monday, February 27, to begin taking steps toward repealing the state law that includes animal massage therapy under veterinary medicine; if the board declines to do so, Wheeler and Stowe’s lawsuit will be filed.

Threatening to jail an individual for massaging a horse is absurd. These women aren’t giving medical advice to owners, or surgically operating on horses, or doing anything that only a licensed veterinarian could do. Remember, this kind of massage is not even taught in veterinary school. Under Tennessee’s logic, why shouldn’t massage therapists who practice exclusively on people be required to hold a medical degree?

The veterinary board ought to take the necessary steps to begin updating this illogical statute. If it doesn’t, it will need to explain in court why it’s permissible to deprive Stowe and Wheeler of their fundamental constitutional rights.

Austin YackAustin Yack is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute and a University of California, Santa Barbara alumnus.


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