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Score a Win for the Horse Massager

When, as an old man, I look back on the favorite things I encountered during my years as a big-time Washington Post journalist, certain to rank near the top will be hearing a Circuit Court judge ask of an attorney appearing before him: "How can you massage human parts on a horse?'

How indeed. Unless you are dealing with a centaur or some other mythical half human/half equine creature, you can't massage human parts on a horse.

And yet for the last year and a half the Maryland Board of Chiropractic Examiners has been unclear on that concept. In 2008 it sent a licensed massage therapist from Gaithersburg named Mercedes Clemens a cease-and-desist letter forbidding her from laying her hands on animals.

I am happy to report that this morning Judge David A. Boynton ruled that the chiropractic board, which licenses massage therapists, has no jurisdiction over animal massage. Mercedes is allowed to get back to the work she loves.

“I’ll be letting all of my former horse clients know that I’m free to massage their horses," Mercedes told me outside the courtroom minutes after the judge issued his ruling.

Paul Sherman, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the libertarian public interest group that took on her case, said, "This is a total vindication of Mercedes's rights. If I have one concern it's that it took 17 months and a team of lawyers to get Mercedes back in business."

The last time the issue came before Judge Boynton, the only people in Courtoom 8 at the Circuit Court in Rockville, were Mercedes, her lawyers, the chiropractic board's lawyer and a few reporters. This time there was a collection of massage therapists, animal trainers and pet owners in support of Mercedes.

Barbara Davenport, a massage therapist from Langley Park, wore a T-shirt that said "De-stress yourself with a massage" and as she spoke with me she worked her expert fingers around my shoulders. She was incensed by the chiropractic board's heavy-handed efforts.

Silver Spring's Trish Rimo said she'd seen the benefits of massage therapy. Four years ago she rescued a Great Pyrenees, a breed of dog that can weigh more than 150 pounds. The 8-month-old puppy was so wild he was named Bronco Billy. Massage calmed the dog down. "I'm convinced of that," Trish said.

He now goes by the name Kaiser.

I'd like to think this is over, that Mercedes and others like her are now free to massage animals without fear, but I still can't relax. The judge said that while Maryland's chiropractic board may not regulate animal massage, it does have the authority to regulate the use of its license. My prediction? As soon as a massage therapist mentions--on his Web site, in a newspaper ad--that he is licensed to work on humans and also works on animals, the board will be on him like a Swedish masseuse on a tense shoulderblade.

If that happens, Mercedes's lawyer told me, they'll be back in court.

By John Kelly  |  July 30, 2009; 2:31 PM ET
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