Mimesis Law
28 February 2021

Tennessee Cracks Down on the Scourge of Unlicensed Horse Massage

February 21, 2017 (Fault Lines) – The Government loves to fix problems. And if it can’t find any, it creates new ones. Tennessee resident Laurie Wheeler is getting a first-hand look at how the government can turn a feel-good story into a cease and desist letter, usually at the expense of the little guy…or gal…or horse.

Wheeler adopted an abandoned horse named Jazz back in 2010. Jazz suffers from Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), a terrible neurological disease in horses with devastating symptoms. The disease is hard to diagnose, but relatively treatable. Wheeler treated Jazz with both medication and massage therapy.

[Wheeler]’s twice been certified in equine massage by an Indiana-based animal therapy school, and, in 2016, successfully obtained a license from the state of Tennessee, where she lives, to practice massage therapy on humans.

With all the terrible things going on in the world, isn’t it nice to hear about a good person doing a good thing? Laurie Wheeler didn’t just get a horse, she adopted an abandoned horse. The abandoned horse had a terrible disease and she is treating the disease. Not just treating it, but actually learning how to be involved in the treatment.

The story should end there and turn into a heart-warming Facebook share about a girl and her horse. But the government has other plans. Specifically, the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, who informed Wheeler that she and the horse she rode in on were not going to be engaging in any unlicensed horse massaging.

Maybe you are one of those people who thinks everyone should have a license to do anything. So just go get a license, right? No problem.

Except it’s not that simple. Wheeler would have to go to veterinarian school if she wants to qualify for a license in horse massaging. Maybe that makes sense. You wouldn’t want some uneducated brain surgeon doing brain surgery on you, right? There is just one little difference. The brain surgeon actually studied brain surgery in medical school. Wheeler, on the other hand, would need to go to a school that actually doesn’t teach what she wants to do.

I would have to go to veterinary school, and how crazy is that? I wouldn’t learn anything about massaging there, because it’s not in the curriculum.

 How sensible. The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners wants Wheeler to stop doing what she is doing until she goes to a school that doesn’t actually teach what she is doing. Then she will be qualified to do what she already knows how to do. Only in America.

In case you think this story is a one-trick pony and you aren’t getting both sides, the stakes are a little higher here than just Jazz’s suffering. If Wheeler decides to be a cowgirl and defy the Board, she risks jail time.

If she ignored the board’s letter and continued to practice, even if she gave horse massages for free rather than as a business, and she could face fines of up to $500 and could be sent to jail for as much as six months for committing a class B misdemeanor.

That makes a lot of sense, because silly laws aren’t taken seriously until they are coupled with an unreasonable jail sentence.

As Wheeler dug her heels in, the Board’s position became more and more illogical. Wheeler wanted to know if she could ask the board to change its rules. The Board’s attorney informed her that petitioning the Board wouldn’t work. And in case Wheeler thought she could get around the rule by doing free horse massages, no luck there either.

“Arguably, compensation shouldn’t matter,” [attorney for the Board Keith] Hodges wrote back, since the purpose of the law is “to protect the public from being misled by incompetent, unscrupulous and unauthorized practitioners” and says nothing about being paid.

Anytime the government needs to defend some asinine and outdated regulation of an activity, it defaults to the idea that this is for the citizen’s protection. They are not being unreasonable, just cautious. Of course, that argument ends up falling apart with a little research.

Giving a massage to a horse in Tennessee requires a veterinary license, but a resident of the state can castrate a horse or artificially inseminate a horse without being licensed—even though both of those activities would seem to have more in common with a vet’s medical training than anything Wheeler was doing.

Tennessee says only a vet can give a horse massage. Despite the fact it seems most vets wouldn’t be trained in horse massaging. But castrating or inseminating a horse? Anybody can do that. As Reason.com points out, the Tennessee board claims a noble purpose.

According to its website, the board’s “mission is to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of Tennesseans by insuring that all who practice as a veterinarian, veterinary medical technician, or euthanasia technician within this state are qualified.”

Putting someone in jail for an unlicensed horse massage seems frivolous. But it’s probably enough to keep most people from trying it, because who really wants to go to jail?

If all of this seems a little overblown to you, you may not understand how regulation works. It has everything to do with protection, just not protecting you. This Board that is blocking Wheeler, and other non-veterinarians, from doing horse massages couldn’t care less about some unscrupulous horse massager taking you for a ride.

Bringing a harmless and potentially profitable practice under the broader umbrella of veterinary medicine does nothing [to] help Wheeler and her horse (or her potential clients), but it does serve the interests of Tennessee veterinarians. Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that six of the board’s seven voting members are veterinarians or vet technicians.

The real party being protected is an industry that doesn’t want any extra, and affordable, competition. Which is exactly why, when you hear the nine most terrifying words in the English language, you can rest assured no one from the government is actually there to help you.

4 Comments on this post.

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  • JAV
    21 February 2017 at 4:46 pm - Reply

    Meanwhile, a considerable number of Montanans look at their sheep and sigh with relief.

  • Chris Seaton
    24 February 2017 at 8:46 am - Reply

    With this issue officially bugging the shit out of me ever since Josh’s post, I finally broke down this morning and asked Mrs. S., an actual veterinarian, about this issue.

    She said she’s never heard of therapeutic equine massage, that it’s not a course taught commonly in veterinary schools, and in her professional opinion treating conditions like the one Jazz has with medication and massage absent a DVM degree is a dangerous and irresponsible thing to do.

    • Josh
      24 February 2017 at 10:21 am - Reply

      She kind of makes my point about the vet license requirement. Veterinarians don’t get trained in this, so the idea you can only do it with a vet license is silly. And there is nothing to suggest this lady smuggled in horse drugs and is administering them herself.

      So if a vet has prescribed this medicine and the massage therapy is supplemental, what’s the danger in that? Not a rhetorical question. If we have a real live vet on the line let’s get some answers!

      • Chris Seaton
        24 February 2017 at 10:34 am - Reply


        With a real live vet on the line, I can give you the following answer.

        Her concern is that treating a horse like Jazz without proper understanding of anatomy and physiology, as well as alternate treatment methods for conditions like the one Jazz suffers from, would make a DVM degree proper.

        There may be other, better treatment options than medication and massage that have not been explored. A DVM would be able to evaluate and discuss this, and even treat it.

        Mind you, I’m not necessarily saying I’d disagree with the DVM who is giving the opinion (and sweetheart, if you’re reading this you’re totally in the right and Josh and I are just being lawyers). I just asked the question, and the answer is “If she doesn’t understand veterinary medicine, the Vet Board is in the right.”