The state’s love of control is most succinctly demonstrated by its desire to oversee and control professional development through occupational licensing. This strict licensing structure prevents would-be entrepreneurs by placing barriers in their path. Individuals who would like to take a particular skill and go into business for themselves must first seek government permission. But this isn’t as simple as it may sound. Not only does the state require mountains of paperwork and sometimes thousands of dollars, they also often require training or schooling that is not directly related to the business in question at all.
One such example of this comes from Tennessee, where local licensing boards threatened two entrepreneurial women for massaging performance horses, without first obtaining a veterinary license legally allowing them to do so.
A Voluntary Labor of Love
Laurie Wheeler is a professional jazz musician with a strong love of horses. It should come as no surprise, then, that she decided to name her own horse, Jazz.
Wheeler holds a certification in equine myofascial release, a type of healing massage that is extremely helpful for performance horses. It should also be noted that Wheeler does, in fact, hold a license in massage therapy, however, it is specifically for humans and not the equestrian species.
Wheeler has been assisting horses for years, never asking for compensation along the way. For her, helping out a horse in need is a labor of love and not a skill she uses to provide for her livelihood.
However, she was shocked when she received a letter informing her that she was breaking state law and threatening to take further actions should she continue to treat horses without first fulfilling the veterinary degree requirements made by Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners—a board within Tennessee’s Department of Health.
What was most appalling—and confusing—to Wheeler, was the fact that she had never even received compensation for massaging horses. Even so, the official letter from the state of Tennessee promised to fine and arrest her if she continued treat horses, regardless of whether or not she received payment for her services.
As Wheeler does not rely on massaging horses in order to pay her bills, she agreed to stop doing so after receiving the letter. However, a few months after the state contacted her, Wheeler witnessed a horse suffering terribly from an impaction formed in his intestines.
As this is one of the many ailments that can be treated through equine myofascial release, Wheeler could not in good conscience sit idly by while an animal suffered unnecessarily. Disregarding the state’s threats, she stepped into action. “I didn’t care. I put my hands on [the horse’s] belly for a while, maybe three to four hours, and he passed his impaction that night,” she continued, “If I’m needed, I go. Period.”
Taking Bread out of Their Mouths
Unlike Wheeler, Martha Stowe relies on equine massages to pay her bills. Also certified in this specific method of massage, Stowe funded True Equine, where she provides services to a large clientele.
“For performance horses, this is important,” Stowe told the National Review, “you want them to have complete range of motion.”
Two years after starting her business, Stowe’s husband was deployed to Iraq. Luckily, Stowe’s skills allowed her to provide for their family of four while her husband was away.
As is relatively common among those returning from war, Stowe’s husband has not yet reentered the workforce since returning to the states. “I became the sole breadwinner,” Stowe says. But in April 2016, the state sent Stowe a letter similar to the one Wheeler received. The letter threatened to fine Stowe $500 or to give her six months of jail time.
While logic would lead many to at least hope that Tennessee would take Stowe’s family circumstances into consideration, that didn’t seem to play any sort of role in the state’s decision to go after True Equine.
Explaining her situation, Stowe said:
“I was terrified, I didn’t do any myofascial from the day I received the letter until about June, but then I realized there was no way we could pay our bills if I didn’t do it.”
The state is putting Stowe and her family in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between feeding themselves or complying with the odd state statute.
Government Hates Competition
One would hope that Tennessee’s unwavering dedication to the enforcement of this law would be backed by sound reason, but unfortunately, that is not the case. Like most, if not all, occupational licensing laws, Tennessee’s law exists to protect the veterinarians from unwanted competition, and not the health and safety of the animals involved.
In order for both Stowe and Wheeler to continue doing what they do best, the state is demanding they complete veterinary school. According to a site dedicated to answering questions from those wanting to pursue a career as a veterinarian, the average cost of a four-year program within the United States is between $147,000 and $250,000.
Adding to the state’s hypocrisy, it should be noted that veterinarian schools do not actually teach or even require a discussion on the practice of equine myofascial release. Paying such a steep price for a veterinary degree that does nothing to further either of their specialty skills does nothing but line the pockets of those atop the veterinarian hierarchy.
The only real benefit to be gained from forcing these women to get veterinary degrees is the state’s reaffirmation that it has sole control and power over the livelihoods of its citizens. This point is especially exemplified when looking at other veterinary-related activities that do not require a license in the state of Tennessee.
According to Braden Boucek, the director of litigation for the Beacon Center who is helping these two women fight the state’s ridiculous laws, “The list of things you can do legally to animals without a veterinary degree includes castration, dehorning, artificial insemination, and transplanting a frozen embryo.”
By making this point, Boucek is seeking to prove that Tennessee is depriving both Stowe and Wheeler of their Constitutional right to equal protection under the law. Additionally, Boucek is arguing that this statute further violates Constitutional rights by violating the 14th Amendment, which requires states to comply with Constitutional protections, such as owning private property and using that property to earn a living.
Boucek gave the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners until the end of February to begin taking the initial steps towards reforming the law that lumps animal massage therapy together with veterinary medicine.
Not to give the government any more bad ideas, but following the state’s logic, chiropractors and acupuncturists working with humans would also have to hold medical degrees before working on clients, which would not only be absurd, it would also bar many people from earning a living.