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Rubbed the Wrong Way: That Horse Massage Case


The case before Judge David A. Boynton of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County yesterday afternoon was about a Maryland woman's right to massage horses. But it was also about her right to massage humans. And there was the rub, so to speak.

It's not that Mercedes Clemens wants to massage horses and humans at the same time (I don't think; I didn't ask her), but that she likes having both four-legged animals and two-legged animals among her clientele.

I wrote about Mercedes last year, about how she's ridden since she was a girl, how she learned to massage stressed-out horses and enjoyed it so much that she learned to massage people and got licensed to do that. But when the Chiropractic Examiners Board of Maryland learned of her dual practices, it came down hard, sending her an unambiguous letter telling her to stop. The state's veterinary board also weighed in, saying Mercedes wasn't qualified to knead and stroke horse flesh.

Mercedes stopped massaging horses. And then she went to court.

Jurisprudence can seem like a complicated thing. Legal language seems designed to confuse, but if you had been in Judge Boynton's courtroom you might have believed that the legal process can be pretty common sensical.

The judge read out the pertinent language from the Chiropractic Board's cease and desist letter to Mercedes--"YOU ARE TO IMMEDIATELY CEASE AND DESIST FROM THE PRACTICE OF MASSAGE OF HORSES AND ANY OTHER ANIMAL IN THE STATE OF MARYLAND"--then asked a simple question: "How does the Board of Chiropractic Examiners have the authority to state that to anyone?"

In other words, how can an organization that oversees the massaging of humans crack heads when it comes to the massaging non-humans?

The answer from assistant attorney general Grant D. Gerber seemed to be that by running afoul of the veterinary board, Mercedes had jeopardized her human license. But not long after Mercedes filed her case, the veterinary board withdrew its opposition to her practice and was dismissed from the suit. The chiropractors were left to sort of go it on their own. They remained bent out of shape.

"Let me get back to the question I initially asked," said the judge. "Your board does not control the massage of animals. What authority does it have to issue a cease and desist order telling her not to massage horses?"

The assistant attorney general (AAG) had the unenviable task of having to defend a position that got sillier and sillier every time the judge described it. The vet board didn't have a problem with her massaging horses? Uh, no. And the chiropractors have no jurisdiction over animal massage? Um, that's right.

The problem, as Mercedes and her lawyers saw it, was that, according to the chiropractors, anybody in Maryland could massage horses except for licensed massage therapists.

AAG Gerber said that the board would have preferred for the issue to have been handled in a different manner, an administrative hearing before the chiropractic board, say. Why the need for all this legal stuff: so convoluted, so anxiety-inducing? Sure, they could withdraw the order and end the case right then--if the first thing they could do was hold a board hearing on Mercedes.

But Mercedes and her attorneys--from the Institute for Justice and working for her for free--were skeptical. Lawyer Scott Bullock said he didn't want "to throw her back to the mercy of the board when it's not clear they've changed their position at all."

The judge did not grant the chiropractic board's motion to dismiss the suit, which was a victory for the horse/human masseuses of Maryland. And AAG Gerber hinted that his client would rescind the letter at its next meeting, on May 14. Judge Boynton said he would reconvene his court on June 2 to see if the parties had worked things out.

Mercedes was the only person in watching the proceedings in Courtroom 8--if you didn't count the four members of the media. A slight woman with very strong hands, she hasn't massaged a horse in over a year. She's ready, though, just waiting for the green light. Chomping at the bit, you might say.

By John Kelly  |  May 6, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
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Oh the irony! For years chiropractors were seen as pseudo-practitioners or quacks. Now, they go after this lady for horse massaging...and its not even in their board's remit!? I understand that chiropractors used to describe themselves as "straights" or "mixers" depending on whether they stuck strictly to chiropractic arts as defined by the discipline's founder or added in main stream medical practices. Maybe the combination of horse and human could be considered a daily double or the quinella of healing.

Posted by: mfromalexva | May 6, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

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