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Tennessee woman's case against criminal charges for horse massages being reviewed by state

Tennessee woman's case against criminal charges for horse massages being reviewed by state. PHOTO: Laurie Wheeler and her horse Jazz
Tennessee woman's case against criminal charges for horse massages being reviewed by state. PHOTO: Laurie Wheeler and her horse Jazz
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NASHVILLE, Tenn.--A Franklin woman trying to turn her love of equine massage into a business was shocked then the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners told her she could face six months in jail and a $500 fine each time she gave a horse a massage.

Braden Boucek, the Director of Litigation for the Beacon Center of Tennessee is representing Laurie Wheeler in her case against the board's regulation against equine massage. Wheeler says "we have the support of most veterinarians in Middle Tennessee but there is a disconnect between the board and the vets. It's confusing to me because even if I went to veterinary school, there's no teaching of massage therapy."

It's an irony not lost on Boucek, who says while the board has regulations against massage therapy, there is nothing keeping farmers from performing castration, de-horning, or other invasive procedures.

Wheeler, a life-long jazz musician, wasn't a "horse person" since she was focused on her music. That changed when a friend told her about an abandoned horse in a field that was noticeably malnourished and ill. Wheeler adopted the horse, naming him "Jazz." Wheeler says Jazz was placed on numerous drugs to help him return to health, but they were wreaking havoc on his body. "He had a spinal parasite which was deteriorating his muscles. The drugs wreaked havoc on his body. That's when I met Martha," Wheeler says.

Martha Stowe is a licensed Myofascial Release (MFR) therapist. Wheeler says "picture the myofascial system as a three-dimensional web which runs through the entire body. It goes from your head to your toes and is the largest system in the body." Stowe started giving Jazz MFR treatment and it didn't take long to have an effect. "I noticed progress immediately and that's when I realized I needed to get certified," says Wheeler.

She did just that, getting certified for MFR by an accredited educator in Indiana. Wheeler says she started treating horses in 2011 for free but more horse owners started asking her if she could treat them as well. So, Wheeler applied to be a Licensed Massage Therapist, getting letters of recommendation from professionals, including a local veterinarian who stated in his letter he had witnessed Wheeler's commitment to horse massage and knew she would be a great massage therapist for humans.

On February 18, 2016, Wheeler received word there was "an issue" with one of her recommendation letters to become a massage therapist. Wheeler was told a complaint had been filed against her for practicing veterinary medicine without a license. While Wheeler was never told who filed the complaint, she says just two months later, she received a letter from former Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners rep Keith Hodges telling her to cease and desist the practice of giving horses MFR treatment. Hodges informed her of the Class B misdemeanor and the charges that come along with it. As the Beacon Center's Boucek points out, along with the $500 fine and 6 months in jail penalties, there is also a potential $1,000 civil penalty that could be imposed.

Told she couldn't petition the state vet board, Wheeler started digging around on how to fight the regulation and was led to Boucek with the Beacon Center. "Talk about a ray of light," Wheeler says. Boucek took on Wheeler's case, which also includes Stowe. Boucek says the Beacon Center sent the board a letter informing them of their intent to take the issue to court unless steps were taken to repeal the regulation. Boucek says the board "asked for more time." When time was nearly up, Boucek then received a request from the Tennessee Attorney General's Office asking them for time to review the regulation. "They have until next Monday (Feb. 27) to start taking steps to repeal the regulation" Boucek says.

He also feels confident in their ability to win the case if it goes to court. Boucek says similar regulations have been repealed in other states, including one in Arizona just twoo weeks ago. "It was a case that surrounded horse massage and very similar circumstances. The state decided the regulations had to be put out to pasture, pun intended," says Boucek.

Boucek says the regulation is not only unconstitutional, it is not in the public's best interest.

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Wheeler says the process has been a long one and she ultimately did get licensed as a massage therapist for people. Wheeler adds she's found that riders and horses often share the same issues. "If a rider has pelvis tightness or isn't aligned, often times the horse will then face similar issues since the horse has to compensate for the rider." The journey has changed Wheeler's path and it's one that could continue to change, depending on what the state decides next week.

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