The Buzz

The Strange Story of How One State Criminalized Compassion for Animals

Giving physical therapy to animals usually isn’t too controversial, but apparently in Tennessee, it is.

A Tennessee licensing board has threatened to criminally prosecute two women for nothing more than helping horses through massage therapy. Their case shows just how asinine state occupational licensing laws can be: While the applicable regulatory scheme forbids their current massage practices, the training they are required to have would not cover the massage techniques they actually use.

Fortunately, the women found help from conservative lawyers at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and they are fighting back against these irrational restrictions.

Laurie Wheeler of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, has a passion for horses. After adopting an abandoned horse named Jazz in 2010, Wheeler discovered that her new best friend suffered from a deteriorating muscle condition.

Wheeler sought traditional treatment plans, but high doses of drugs seemed to make matters worse for Jazz instead of better.

That’s when Wheeler met Martha Stowe, an equine massage therapist from nearby Williamson County, Tennessee. Stowe built a successful horse massage business while her husband was fighting for our country in Iraq and has supported her family of four through the entrepreneurial venture since his return.

Wheeler hired Stowe to work with the ailing Jazz and “noticed progress immediately.” In fact, Wheeler was so inspired by her horse’s improvement that she decided to follow in Stowe’s footsteps and learn the discipline herself to help Jazz and other hurting horses.

Wheeler enrolled in an accredited animal therapy school based in Indiana and became certified in myofascial release therapy. In 2011, she began using her newly acquired techniques to treat friends’ horses for free, and demand for her services has only increased since then.

In 2016, Wheeler graduated from massage therapy school in an effort to obtain a license in her home state of Tennessee to provide massage therapy to people, too. What started as a passion project was well on its way to becoming a small business where Wheeler could use her gift to treat both horses and their riders.

But before her business got off the ground, big government stepped in.

No License, No Massages

In April of 2016, Wheeler received a cease and desist letter from the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners explaining that she was practicing veterinary medicine without a license.

Even though Wheeler has a degree to practice massage therapy on people, she is being threatened with fines and a potential jail sentence if she attempts to practice massage therapy on horses.

The Tennessee board’s rules define veterinary medicine to include “massage therapy” (Rule 1730-01-.02). Tennessee law further provides that the unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine is a Class B misdemeanor (T. C. A. § 63-12-119).

As such, Wheeler could face up to six months in jail and a fine up to $500 for trying to soothe horses in violation of state law (T. C. A. § 40-35-111).

Wheeler initially put her business venture aside after receiving the threatening letter, but she could not turn a blind eye to horses forever. She asked the Tennessee board if she could continue her practice for free, but the board’s attorney answered “nay.”

Still, Wheeler remained undeterred. In her own words, “When I get a call from a friend whose horse is in the hospital and she’s desperate, I’m [going to] go.”