WASHINGTON – Rockville massage therapist Mercedes Clemens thought she had the perfect job, until she got a letter from two state agencies telling her to stop working with horses or risk losing her massage therapy license.
“They told me that I could not do massage on any animal in the state of Maryland and that I could not advertise animal massage,” said Clemens, who received the letter in February and has since been working full time as a massage therapist to humans. “I was limited to massaging the human body (because) you had to be a vet to do equine massage. It was basically a complete blanket prohibition.”
The letter, from the Maryland Board of Chiropractic and Massage Therapy Examiners with a note from the Maryland State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners attached, cited Maryland’s Veterinary Practice Act. The law prohibits anyone other than a veterinarian from massaging a horse for “the purpose of diagnosing and treating a specific ailment or injury.”
Clemens, who has been certified since 2007 to massage both people and horses and had been splitting her work week between the two types of clients, filed a lawsuit in June in Montgomery County Circuit Court against the agencies for the right to continue her equine massage therapy work.
Both boards asked to have the case thrown out, and a dismissal hearing is expected this month.
Clemens compared the state requirement that equine massage be performed by a vet to mandating that human massage therapy only be done by doctors.
“My constitutional rights are being violated,” Clemens said. “I have the right to pursue an honest living doing what I love without arbitrary regulation by the government. It serves no public purpose to prohibit me from practicing.”
Paul Sherman, a staff attorney with Institute for Justice, the Alexandria, Va.-based public interest law firm representing Clemens in the lawsuit, said Clemens’ predicament is part of a larger, national problem.
Sherman cited a Louisiana law that requires would-be florists to undergo a written exam to earn that title and a recently-defunct Alabama law that forbade people who decorated homes to call themselves interior designers unless they had obtained a degree in the subject and passed a licensing test.
“This has nothing to do with the health of animals and it has everything to do with the financial interest of the veterinary cartels,” Sherman said.
James Vallone, executive director of the chiropractic board, said his agency sent Clemens the letter simply because she was not in compliance with state law. Other massage therapists doing the same work with horses also received the letter.
“The law in Maryland under the Massage Practice Act states that a licensee may not practice on anyone other than a human,” Vallone said. “She got a letter because she was advertising with her massage certification. We don’t issue anything other than certifications to practice on the human anatomy.”
Vallone declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Horse owners say they feel the loss.
Brandywine resident Jan Denno began using Clemens’ services when her show horse, Tramp, was on stall rest for a pulled muscle.
“He was in a 12-by-12 stall and his muscles were cramping,” Denno said. “(Massage) relaxed him. It helped his muscles be a little looser.”
Damascus resident Kim Harpster, owner of Mezza Luna Farm in Damascus, said her mare, Maddie, had been showing great improvement in leg muscle flexibility following massage therapy appointments with Clemens. Harpster called the cease-and-desist order “insane.”
“These are my horses, not the state’s, and to come to find out that I’m being denied body work for my horses simply because (of) regulations written for veterinary licensing purposes . . . is absolutely insane.”