Occupational Licensing

Tennessee Reins In Horse Massage Licensing Laws

Bill approved without a single "neigh," but lawmakers call "woah" on full repeal and plan to trot out new rules next year.


Photo courtesy Laurie Wheeler

Two Tennessee women will be allowed to continue operating their horse massage businesses without the threat of fines and jail time—at least for the next 15 months—if Gov. Bill Haslam signs a bill that cleared the state legislature this week.

In February, Reason brought you the story of Laurie Wheeler and Martha Stowe, two women who received cease-and-desist letters from the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners because they were massaging horses without a license to practice veterinary medicine in the state. It didn't matter to the board that Wheeler was licensed to give massages to humans (she was offering their services to high performance horses and equestrians in tandem), or that both women had been certified by private organizations in the practice of equine massage. All that mattered was the lack of state-issued permission slip, which meant Wheeler and Stowe had to choose between giving up their business and facing the threat of punishment.

They sued over the licensing rule, and sought changes from the state legislature. The lawsuit is still pending, but a bill that temporarily allows Wheeler and Stowe (and anyone else) to practice horse massage without a license in Tennessee until July 2018 is headed to Haslam's desk after a unanimous vote Monday in the state House.

Lawmakers caught wind of the issue too late in the current legislative sessions to concoct a real fix, but plan to revisit the issue next year, state Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) told Reason in a phone interview Tuesday.

"We got a tremendous amount of pushback from the veterinary board, and they didn't want to lose control over the ability to have supervision over the people who are engaged in horse massage," Roberts said. A compromise between the two sides allowed for the passage of the temporary license-free arrangement, with the implicit promise that state lawmakers would revisit the issue during the 2018 session to come up with a long-term solution. Roberts said he "wasn't happy with it," and would have preferred legislation to exempt horse massage from the state's licensing regime, but ultimately "it was either this compromise or lose the bill entirely."

"In the end, thankfully, we were able to find common ground," Wheeler told Reason via email. She's happy to be allowed to continue practicing her trade, instead of being threatened with fines of up to $500 and as much as six months in jail for committing a class B misdemeanor.

Assuming Haslam signs the bill, this is a small victory in an ongoing fight against onerous licensing laws that serve little or no purpose in protecting public health and safety. The worrying thing is that the temporary nature of the bill could open the door for the creation of a new set of licensing rules specifically for horse masseuses.

During a hearing on the bill earlier this month, several state lawmakers raised concerns about the idea that horse masseuses could be allowed to operate their businesses without a government-issued permission slip.

"This isn't shampooing hair," argued state Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville), whose daughter is a competitive equestrian. "A masseuse could show up at my house, and I have no knowledge of their experience level, their certifications or anything. They could harm one of my horses and it costs us a lot of money and it hurts the animal."

If horse massage was exempted from the state's licensing laws, then there would be "no structure in place to protect your daughter and her horses," offered Matt Povlovich, a veterinarian who testified at the hearing on behalf of the Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association.

Povlovich said the association doesn't want to require horse masseuses to be licensed veterinarians, or require them to work under licensed veterinarians (even though that's the policy the board seems to be enforcing against Wheeler and Stowe), but believes the government has to set "standards" for animal massage in order to protect the animals.

"Because there are no standards of education, who knows how qualified they are," Povlovich said.

It hardly makes sense to hold animal masseuses to the same standards as veterinarians—which would be the same as saying that anyone working at a massage parlor has to be a trained and licensed physician—and at least the veterinarians seem to be admitting that much. Still, it's not clear that there is any compelling reason to require licensing for horse masseuses at all. It's noble to be concerned about the welfare of the animals, but practitioners like Wheeler and Stowe have private certifications and credentials that show they know what they are doing. Lawmakers should trust that horse owners would check those qualifications before letting someone treat their animal, or that they will rely on veterinarians to recommend well-trained and professional masseuses.

There's no real public health or safety issue at stake here. That's what Arizona finally realized earlier this year when it exempted animal massaging from its veterinary licensing laws, following a lengthy legal battle. The story there was very similar to the one in Tennessee: three women running their own horse massage businesses, complete with years of experience and private certifications, were threatened by the state veterinary board with fines and jail time if they didn't get veterinary licenses, which would years of additional schooling in unrelated skills.

Licensing has become more common in recent decades—in the 1970s, only about 5 percent of all jobs required government approval, today about 30 percent do—as special interests have convinced lawmakers to erect additional barriers to entry in many professional field. Now, there's growing skepticism in many state capitols about the efficacy of licensing laws and there are efforts to push back at onerous licensing laws through legislative and legal channels.

The most significant reforms passed this year came out of Mississippi, where a new law requires all licensing boards get approval from the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state before passing new rules.

In Tennessee, state lawmakers last year passed a bill requiring a complete review of existing licensing rules, with an eye towards getting rid of requirements that are serving no purpose. A mandatory license for shampooing hair—which, arguably, is even less focused on protecting public health and safety than the animal massage licensing law—has already been wiped from the books as part of that process.

"It's a little bit on the fledgling side," Roberts said of the ongoing effort to review and reform Tennessee's licensing rules. "It's not picked up a full head of steam yet, but it's moving in the right direction."

The same, it seems, could be said of the state's temporary fix of the horse massage licensing problem.