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Horse sense and the law

A powerful lobby of volunteers is working to get a law that would permit non-veterinarians to provide massages and other therapies to benefit horses.

Published March 20, 2006

[Times photo: Keri Wiginton
Cassandra Mann of Canterbury, Conn., massages Emmy, a pony at Don Stewart Stables in Ocala, during her hands-on training this month with Don Doran's Equine Sports Massage Program. Mann came down for the two-week course to learn a new career and to help her own horses.
Judith Adams of Ontario, Canada, massages the neck and back of Lily Grey, a horse at Don Stewart Stables in Ocala, during her hands-on training this month with Don Doran's Equine Sports Massage Program. Adams, who has had horses for eight years, said she is taking the course to help with her own horses.

Robyn Pelszynski trained with experts to provide the ultimate in relaxing messages to Fancy, her 15-year-old gray Arabian horse. Looking for some part-time work, she then inquired about getting a license as a horse massage therapist in Pasco County.

Pelszynski says she was turned away. Florida law gets murky when it comes to holistic therapies for animals, such as aromatherapy and acupressure. Is it legal to massage a horse without a veterinary degree? Advocates for alternative care and veterinarians can't agree.

But Pelszynski could risk a felony citation for massaging another person's animal.

"That's insane," said Pelszynski, an equestrian living in Spring Hill. "You don't have the right to administer the same types of things to your horses as you do another human."

So what's a horse with a stiff back to do?

This unusual question has stirred quite the fuss in Tallahassee.

At stake is the future of practices like horse whispering, aka animal communication. In one corner stands the Florida Veterinary Medical Association, which is wary of an effort that could allow for unregulated holistic animal treatments.

In the other corner is a savvy coalition of professional lobbyists, many of them equestrians. They are volunteering their expertise to change the law to ensure that non-veterinarians can administer services from flower essence therapy to castration.

The equestrian culture in this capital city has elevated a seemingly fringe issue into a matter of state importance.

After a recent hearing on the proposed law, a prominent lobbyist huddled with the veterinarian's paid voice in Tallahassee, trying to figure out the implications for her own horse.

"If this were just a normal group of people trying to support these issues, it wouldn't get to first base," said Stephen Shores, a Gainesville veterinarian and president of the Florida Veterinary Medical Association. "I kind of feel like a high school football team playing against a professional football team."

Veterinarians don't have problems with farmers hiring outside help for practices like dehorning and shoeing horses.

But they fear animals could get hurt under the amateur care of holistic practitioners, who may not recognize the limits of their non-medical treatments.

"If they do aromatherapy to a horse in a stable because the horse owner thinks the horse will perform better in a race, nobody disputes that," Shores said. "If they begin to provide animal health care that has to do with diagnosing and treating, then that's veterinary medicine."

That argument doesn't fly with advocates of alternative treatments. A horse massage therapist isn't going to try to cure cancer, they say. And there's no reason why an owner shouldn't be able to decide what kinds of treatments to provide to his own animal.

"If my animal needs a massage, I think I have a right to hire someone to do that," said Chuck Smith, a former state representative from Hernando County and executive vice president of the Florida Poultry Federation. "I don't understand why veterinarians are objecting to something they don't do."

The legislative debate started when a handful of Tallahassee lobbyists and horse owners heard about alternative therapists having trouble with the current regulations.

"Often the stumbling block to change the law which defies common sense is the money to hire a lobbyists," said Nancy Stephens, a lobbyist and the owner of five horses. "When you have volunteers to do it for you, it helps."

She helped create the Florida Alliance for Animal Owners Rights Inc. to press the issue. A coalition of volunteer lobbyists has worked the issue just as they would any special interest they were paid to represent in the Legislature.

Recently, veterinarians and lobbyists struck a tenuous compromise to allow non-veterinarians to perform some "animal husbandry" practices. The proposal mentions directly farm-related practices, including shoeing horses, dehorning and debeaking.

In practice, it also could allow for some holistic therapies.

"It's a first step," said Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, the sponsor in the House. "I believe this opens the door to some degree of future examination of these practices."

As the proposed law evolves in the Legislature, it's not clear how wide the door could open this year - or whether it would extend to cats and dogs, or just horses and herd animals.

Only a handful of veterinarians provide the alternative therapies at the heart of the debate. In St. Petersburg, holistic veterinarian Robin Cannizzaro has mixed feelings.

She worries that someone without her expertise could think aromatherapy will cure an ill that turns out to be cancer. She's also concerned about denying animals alternative care.

"I'm capable of doing massage therapy, but I don't have time for it," she said. "If we don't allow message therapists to work on animals, how are animals going to benefit from these modalities that are very beneficial to them?"

--Letitia Stein can be reached at or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified March 20, 2006, 00:36:17]

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