Photo by George Lauby
A diagram of horse's muscles, posted online by a Bozeman, Montana ranch that provides horse care and therapy.
Logan County resident Karen Hough was astounded recently to find out that she had to be a veterinarian just to give a horse a massage. Now she wants to change the state requirement.
Hough, 60, started messaging horses a few years ago. She enjoyed it. She practiced on horses around the area, sometimes offering her services to junior rodeo competitors.
Massages improve a horse’s mobility and frees up muscles. The neck, shoulders and back are loosened to improve jumping, bending, turning, and stopping, advocates say.
“You learn to feel where movement is hindered and release it,” the Prairie Winds school of equine massage in Ft. Collins says. “Your head learns what’s needed, your hands become skilled at facilitating changes and your heart soars with the feeling that you can truly make a difference in the life of these wonderful creatures.”
Hough read about massage and practiced, teaching herself. She also attended training when she could find classes, including a course in Chadron, where she earned a certification of instruction from a company based in Colorado. After that, she thought she was ready to start selling her horse massage services.
Hough checked with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to see how to obtain a state license. To her dismay she learned that she had to be a veterinarian, which takes at least seven years of study and internships. By that time, she would be 67 years old and have a hefty loan for higher education to pay.
A couple weeks after she talked to HHS about a license, she received a threatening letter from HHS, ordering her to “cease and desist” from the “unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine.”
The letter said she could face up to 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
The letter cited state statute 38-3312, which defines the practice of veterinary medicine. The definition includes the most obvious ways of practicing veterinary medicine, such as administering drugs and medicines, and the definition also includes "treating physical animal conditions, and administering any technique to help them physically or mentally."
The law also includes “render(ing) advice” in the definition.
The broadly worded definition includes giving a horse a massage, which potentially made her activities illegal.
She was ordered to quit.
“The Nebraska Board of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery orders you to cease and desist your activities of providing equine massages until such time as you have a valid license to practice veterinary medicine in the State of Nebraska,” the letter said.
That was too much.
“They told me I couldn’t give massages for money; I couldn’t do it for free and I couldn’t even tell friends how to do it,” she said.
“That last one really got to me,” she said. “To me, that is restricting my free speech.” Hough called the Nebraska Attorney General’s office and explained the situation. She was told the Attorney General defends and enforces existing laws, but doesn’t change laws.
She was advised to contact the Legislature where laws are written.
Hough called her state senator’s office – Sen. Deb Fischer, whose term will end in December.
Even though Fischer is leaving, her aide is helping Hough draft a change in the law and refer her to a senator who might be willing to sponsor the bill.
In doing research, Hough has found that 19 states allow equine massage therapy to be practiced without supervision or years of training, including states with lots of horses such as Colorado, Montana, Texas, California and the Dakotas.
She said another 16 states allow horse massage if a veterinarian oversees it.
Only five states have a law as strict as Nebraska’s.
At one time, Hough considered launching a lawsuit. She discovered that a similar suit in New Jersey was successful. In that case, the U.S. Department of Justice pressured state lawmakers to ease up, she said.
But she has decided against it.
“The government suing the government,” she said, “that would just create more expenses.”
Hough recently traveled 20 miles to have the chance to talk to Sen. Fischer about the situation, when Fischer stopped in Stapleton on a campaign swing for the U.S. Senate.
“I’m willing to work until I’m 70,” she told Fischer, “but under this law, I can’t.”
This report was first published in the July 18 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.