ARNOLD, Neb. — On the November day in 2011 when horse massager Karen Hough got the “cease and desist” letter from the state of Nebraska, she was at first bewildered, then scared, then angry, and finally, determined. Why, she asked herself, should she be prohibited from massaging horses when horse owners were willing to pay for her services and the horses visibly felt better?
It took six years, but Hough and other horse massagers finally succeeded in changing Nebraska’s law this year. Now, she can massage horses without a license and without being under the auspices of a veterinarian.
A copy of the law, autographed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, the Republican who signed it, is enshrined in a scrapbook in the kitchen of Hough’s farmhouse, reached by several dirt roads miles from the crossroads that mark the center of her town, posted population 597.
“I felt like I was being bullied, and I didn’t like that,” Hough, 66, recalled over homemade lemon pie and coffee prior to giving a massage demonstration on her quarter horse, Prince.
Hough, a talkative native Nebraskan, isn’t easily bullied, but getting the law changed was hard.
Hough was up against the powerful Nebraska veterinarians’ lobby in this farm-filled state, which aimed to keep the massagers under their purview and require that operators either be licensed veterinarians themselves, work in conjunction with a vet or get a certification in human massage therapy. But in deep red Nebraska, the free-market idea to break the tether between equine massagers and vets prevailed.
Hough’s situation illustrates the complexities and power dynamics that come into play across the country, as states work to balance consumer safety and access to employment in regulating licensed occupations. Many states like Nebraska are loosening up on requirements for occupations, ranging from hair braiders to dental hygienists. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline, has a project addressing the hygienists.)
Arguments in favor of lowering the bar to licensed occupations range from cost (licenses and mandatory education often are expensive) to other restrictions, such as bans on former felons being licensed. Free-market advocates have teamed up with liberal groups in opposition to what they view as barriers to work.
About a quarter of the workforce holds government-issued occupational licenses, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Licensed occupations range from cosmetologists, school bus drivers and emergency medical technicians, which are licensed in most states, to florists and interior designers, which require licenses in only a small number of states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Critics of the licensing generally agree that some skilled professions — particularly those that deal with human health — require licensing, but argue that others, like horse massage, are unnecessary.
Some states have taken broad action to either ease or impose more oversight of licensure requirements. The NCSL pointed to an executive order by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, last year mandating a full review of all existing licensing requirements. It also requires the licensing boards to provide economic justifications for any license that is not required by at least half the states.
In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant, also a Republican, signed into law a measure calling for the governor, secretary of state and attorney general to review any new requirements passed by a state licensing board.
“State legislatures have come to recognize that licensing may be negatively impacting their workforce and consumers,” said Albert Downs, employment policy specialist at the NCSL. Downs said that before 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a North Carolina case that licensing boards are not immune from antitrust laws, dealing a setback to licensed regulation, lawmakers were more inclined to license occupations.
But since that ruling, he said, “states have realized that they need to look at these things more critically. The line that licensing is the best way to protect the public may not necessarily be true.” Other ways of protecting consumers include “lemon laws” or warranty rules, as examples.
The Nebraska Veterinary Medical Association strongly opposed the horse massage bill. In testimony to the state legislature, referred to as the “unicameral” by residents in a nod to its unique one-chamber structure, veterinarian Lissa Nelson said that the old regulatory framework allowed “consumers to access this kind of care at a professional level of service.” She said regulations protected both consumers and the horses’ safety.
State Sen. Mike Groene, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said the veterinarians’ group was being protectionist. They made a “huge assumption,” he said in a phone interview. “The big assumption is that if they are licensed, they are good at it. That’s not true. We are all licensed to drive — does that make everybody a good driver?”
The bill passed unanimously.
While eliminating licensing may be good for business, it can be problematic for consumers, said Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. “The challenge is: Is state licensing a consumer protection or is it an insidious mechanism to limit competition?” he asked in a phone interview.
“We think state licensing has the potential to direct consumers to legitimate service providers, especially when we as consumers really have no ability to judge the level of quality or the proficiency of various service providers. It’s a first cut at identifying individuals and companies who have at least achieved a modicum of expertise and professionalism but may not be a guarantee of high quality.”
The impetus for the horse massagers bill was similar to what drives deregulation of licensed occupations overall: whether the regulations impose a barrier to work, said Nicole Fox, director of government relations at the Platte Institute, a free-market think tank in Omaha, Nebraska.
She noted that the Platte Institute partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union on the bill. The ACLU came at the issue from the point of criminal justice fairness and removing the barriers to entry into some occupations based on licensing restrictions that make it harder for former felons to work in them.
“What drove the bill was it being an issue about somebody being able to work,” Fox said. She noted that most horse massagers are women.
“If I am a horse owner and I feel like my horse is arthritic or is limping, maybe I’m going to seek horse massage,” Fox said. “If the horse owner wants to pay someone to massage the horse, by golly let ‘em.”
Despite the trend toward removing license requirements, some states are taking an opposite tack. In New Jersey, for example, there’s a move to license dog groomers, following an investigation by NJ Advance Media that documented 47 cases across 14 states since 2008 in which dogs died during or shortly after being groomed.
The New Jersey bill, dubbed “Bijou’s Law” after a healthy Shih Tzu who died during a grooming at a store in Paramus six years ago, would require groomers be trained and pass a state exam. “It’s a $5.4 billion industry that has no regulation,” said New Jersey Rep. Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. “It’s time to propose some sort of licensing for pet groomers.”
Huttle said her bill would not be burdensome. It would require $75 for a first application and $50 for annual renewal. The New Jersey bill has been approved by a House committee and is awaiting floor action.
In Nebraska, Hough’s friend Sally Hilderbrant, a pet groomer also from Arnold, isn’t so sure about imposing state regulations. “I’m with her on the government; the government has to keep out of our business.” she said. “But there has to be some standard.”
Both Hough and Hilderbrant say they went to school to perfect their skills and hold certifications, Hough’s from the Sport Horse Therapeutic Equine Massage facility in Colorado. They display their credentials to potential clients and then hope the clients will try them out. They say consumers need to be aware of what massagers or groomers are doing for their animals and maintain they can do so without government regulation.
Dawn Hatcher, who also lobbied the Nebraska legislature on behalf of the horse massagers bill, signed up for the massage course at the Midwest Natural Healing for Animals based in Milan, Indiana, the day after the bill was signed on April 18.
After completing online coursework, Hatcher went to a Wyoming satellite location for hands-on horse work and certification as a Level I therapist. She’s been massaging horses in Nebraska ever since, under her business Peak Performance Equine Bodywork, and is working on a Level II certification that will give her some additional techniques and skills.
Hatcher regularly massages Sophie, a 4-year-old chocolate palomino quarter horse owned by Deb Wilke, who lives about a 15-minute ride away from her rural home where Hatcher is raising two children and working at two other part-time jobs. Wilke, 68, keeps a careful eye on Hatcher as she works on the horse, who Wilke rides in Western dressage competitions.
Wilke said she’s not worried that Hatcher isn’t licensed; finding the right fit for a therapist is the owner’s responsibility. “There’s good reporters and bad reporters, good doctors and bad doctors, good officers and bad officers,” said Wilke, a retired cop. “A lot of it is word of mouth.”
Hatcher’s hands work into Sophie’s body, and the horse visibly relaxes — her ears still, her eyes half closed. There are no flinches when Hatcher’s hands pressure the horse’s broad back and spine.
“When she likes it, she wiggles her lips,” said Hatcher. And then Sophie did.