DAMASCUS, Md. – Mercedes Clemens is certified to massage humans, but she claims the state of Maryland is keeping her from her first love: Massaging horses.
She shut down her equine massage practice in a Washington suburb after state officials told her state law only allows veterinarians to perform such services.
Now she's suing two state agencies, saying regulators are unfairly barring registered massage therapists who want to practice on animals.
Animal massage regulations vary from state to state, with some allowing only veterinarians to practice. Clemens' case is being closely watched by those in the animal massage industry, who say business has grown steadily along with interest in other alternative treatments and pampering for pets.
Equinology, Inc., a Gualala, Calif.-based massage school, says when it began operating about 15 years ago, a couple hundred people took its horse massage therapy courses. Now, almost 900 sign up each year. Company vice president Paul Hougard said there were just a few schools when his company started but estimates there are now about 50 across the country.
The National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage plans to start an online exam next month to create credential standards. Among other things, it will test massage techniques, anatomy, ethics and animal behavior.
A self-described horse fanatic, Clemens, 40, got private animal massage certification about two years ago and started practicing on horses, eventually growing her business to about 30 regular horse clients. She likes to help soothe the animals and work through their sore and tight muscles.
Now she works only on her own horse, Chanty.
"This isn't just a career for me, it's my passion," Clemens said. "If I was independently wealthy and I didn't need an income, I would do this for nothing. That's how much I love it."
In a March letter to Clemens, the Maryland Board of Chiropractic Examiners told her state law is very specific in barring massage therapists from practicing on animals.
The chiropractic board also included a note from Maryland's state veterinary board reminding chiropractors and massage therapists of the restrictions.
Clemens says she's never made medical claims or tried to be a substitute veterinarian. Nevertheless, she was so concerned about facing prosecution or losing her human massage license that she pulled advertisements about her horse work and ended her equine practice.
Clemens, who also massages humans, says working on horses is much different.
"They can be very dangerous animals if you don't know what you're doing," she said. "It's very unlikely a person on a massage table is going to kick me."
She isn't asking for damages or compensation in her lawsuit. She just wants the right to practice on animals. She says she is being unfairly targeted and that the state allows other animal massage therapists to practice. The Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based libertarian public interest law firm, has taken up her case.
An attorney for the state chiropractic board said the agency is asking for the court to dismiss the case, citing Montgomery County as an improper venue because the order was issued from Baltimore. The state veterinary board also wants out of the lawsuit, claiming it never ruled specifically on Clemens' practice. Veterinary board President Chris H. Runde says his agency doesn't regulate horse massage by non-veterinarians if the aim is solely for "helping the animal relax or generally feel better."
As Clemens awaits a court hearing next month, she continues to dote on Chanty, feeding her carrots, kissing her nose and of course, massaging her knots.
"If it was just me it wouldn't really be worth all of this," she said. "But this is a much bigger constitutional issue."