As It Happens

'I have to help them': Tennessee woman won't stop massaging horses despite risk of jail time

In the state of Tennessee, it's illegal to practice animal massage without a veterinary license — but that hasn't stopped Laurie Wheeler.
Laurie Wheeler poses with her horse Jazz. Wheeler is fighting the state of Tennessee, which has barred her from practising massage therapy on horses without a veterinary licence. (Laurie Wheeler)

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Every time Laurie Wheeler massages a horse, she risks six months in jail or a $500 fine.

"When I get a call from a friend whose horse is in the hospital and she's desperate, I'm gonna go," the Leiper's Fork, Tenn., woman told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "So here I am in the equine hospital doing what I've been told I can't do or I'll go to jail."

Wheeler practises a technique called myofascial release, which she says she learned at the Motion For Life school in Indiana. She says she often gets calls from local veterinarians to help out a horse in pain.

Even if I did go to veterinary school, which is basically what they're telling me I would have to do to massage horses, I wouldn't learn massage therapy.- Laurie Wheeler, horse masseuse 

"People don't know how to take care of their horses in general. They ride 'em, they use 'em up and they don't understand nutrition," she said.

"I've seen about every muscle, every part of the body on a horse, just hurting."

She says business was booming until she decided to apply to become a licensed massage therapist to practise on humans, and included a recommendation letter from vet she often works with.

That letter, she says, got flagged to the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, who sent her a cease-and-desist order, barring her from working on horses without a veterinary licence.

Wheeler calls this "an extreme case of government overreaching."

"Even if I did go to vet school, which is basically what they're telling me I would have to do to massage horses, I wouldn't learn massage therapy in veterinary school. It's not even a part of their curriculum."

Wheeler points out that under the guidelines, while she can't massage horses, farmers can castrate and de-horn their own animals.

"It makes absolutely no sense," she says.

'A lot of harm can come from them'

Reached for comment by As It Happens, the Tennessee veterinary board said massage falls under the category of "complementary, alternative and integrative therapies" under its guidelines, and can only be practiced by a third party under the supervision of a veterinarian, who would assume responsibility for the animal's health.

The board would not comment directly on Wheeler's case. 

Rules governing who can practise animal massage vary from state to state. Earlier this month, animal massage therapists won a lawsuit against the state of Arizona that allows them to practise legally without a veterinary license.

A three-year-old Shih Tzu named Ren gets massaged at a pet salon in Tokyo. Rules regarding animal massage in the U.S. vary by state. (Eriko Sugita/Reuters)

In a 2014 Associated Press story about the rising popularity of animal massage, Adrian Hochstadt of the American Veterinary Medical Association said: "We do consider them veterinary procedures, and we feel the same standards should be used because a lot of harm can come from them."

As It Happens has reached out to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association for an overview rules north of the border.

Wheeler, meanwhile, continues to plying her trade legally people and illegally on horses, insisting no harm can come of it. 

"I just can't help it," she said. "I have to help them."


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