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Hands Off the Horses, Massage Therapist Is Told

By John Kelly
Thursday, September 25, 2008

It used to be that when a horse was tense, stressed out from a day at work or fried from time spent in a hellacious commute, Mercedes Clemens was there to help. The Gaithersburg massage therapist could lay her healing hands on the beast's body and unkink the knots. That was before she got an official letter telling her in no uncertain terms that by massaging horses, she was breaking the law.

"This is the only horse I can legally massage now," Mercedes told me last week as we stood inside a barn in Damascus. Chanty, Mercedes's 20-year-old quarter horse/Arabian cross, was waiting patiently, her ears flicking every now and then. Mercedes flipped the horse's chestnut mane from one side of her neck to the other and then started kneading Chanty's muscles.

"There just seem to be little girls who are bitten by some horse-crazy bug," said Mercedes, 40. "And I was one of them."

She grew up in Kensington and pestered her parents enough that she spent much of her childhood in a saddle. After college, she became a graphic designer and spent the next 15 years hunched over a computer, punishing her back. A regular massage was one of the only things that helped ease the aches and pains.

A friend suggested that if Mercedes loved horses so much and appreciated the health benefits of the massages she received, she should combine the two. Mercedes took an eight-month equine massage course and hung up her shingle.

She said she so enjoyed massaging horses that she decided to do humans, too. She took a 600-hour course in human massage therapy and received certification. Her practice was evenly split between horses and humans. She charged the same for both: $85 for an hour-long massage, whether you have two legs or four.

And that's when the problems started. In February, Mercedes received a letter from the Maryland Board of Chiropractic Examiners. The part that jumped out read: "YOU ARE TO IMMEDIATELY CEASE AND DESIST FROM THE PRACTICE OF MASSAGE OF HORSES AND ANY OTHER ANIMAL IN THE STATE OF MARYLAND."

I asked James Vallone of the Maryland Board of Chiropractic Examiners what the deal was. "The state law says that neither chiropractors nor massage therapists working under the scope of their licenses may work on anybody or anything but the human anatomy," he said. "You can't work on animals, period."

Vallone pointed out that it's partially a safety issue. Someone with diabetes or a stroke can be killed by a massage.

Mercedes scoffs at such notions. "It is really, really difficult to harm a horse with massage, especially if all you're using is your hands." Besides, she points out, Maryland allows non-veterinarians to do much more dangerous things than massage horses. Shoeing them, for example.

Mercedes persuaded the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm in Arlington, to help her. She's suing the chiropractic board and the Maryland State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners for the right to massage horses.

Said Paul Sherman, a staff attorney at the institute: "This case is about what we call economic liberty, the right to earn an honest living free from government regulations."

The vet board released a statement saying it doesn't mind non-vets giving massages, so long as they're only for relaxation or making the animal "generally feel better." Mercedes said that wasn't the board's position when this all started. She's afraid to touch a horse, given the threatening language in the letters she has received.

But isn't horse massage a little, you know, weird? Isn't it pampering taken to a ridiculous extreme, like pedicures for cats or canine facials?

"Most of the horses I massaged were working horses," Mercedes said. "They worked for a living. So, they're athletes, just like human athletes. Their muscles get stiff and a little sore, and it helps relax the muscles so they can feel better. A lot of times when horses are at work, they're being pushed pretty hard. And they can't say, 'Hey, this hurts, this is really bothering me,' and they tend to exhibit behavior such as grumpiness."

Hours spent traveling our roads cooped up in a horse box just add to the grumpiness.

In the Damascus barn, Chanty's massage was nearing its end. Mercedes leaned in with an elbow on Chanty's big brown flank, 110 pounds of human meeting 950 pounds of horse.

"Typically, when they start licking and chewing, that means they like it," she said. Chanty's pinkish-white lips were moving back and forth like an old man gumming some mashed potatoes.

"One of my favorite things about this job is I get my hands dirty," Mercedes said, lifting up palms dusty from warm horse flesh.

Postscript: Yesterday morning, Chanty developed a severe case of colic, a painful and dangerous intestinal disorder. Mercedes and her veterinarian decided to euthanize the horse.

To see a video of Mercedes Clemons massaging Chanty, go tohttp://www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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