Several years ago at the Upperville Colt & Horse Show (Va.), I was hacking my horse the morning before my afternoon classes. I chose a beautiful, lush field behind the tents where a half-dozen other competitors were riding. As I looped around the field, concentrating on getting my hunter loose, round and rhythmic, we suddenly slammed to the ground. My horse had stepped into an unseen groundhog hole.
I walked him back to our stalls, removed his boots, and my trainer and I evaluated him. There were grass stains on his knees, but thankfully no scrapes, and he trotted out sound. But with another six to eight hours before we were scheduled to show, we wondered if he would get stiff from the fall. I called my massage therapist and asked if she could fit him in that afternoon. With her assistance, we trotted happily into the ring later that day.
Unfortunately, the ease at which I could arrange a massage may be more difficult for some horse owners because the American Veterinary Medical Association, which sets standards for veterinary ethics and practice for all animals, modified their Model Veterinary Practice Act in 2003 (see p. 8). The act says that it’s safest to have veterinarians working on animals, not practitioners who use complementary, alternative or integrative therapies, such as massage, chiropractics and even dentistry. Would a veterinarian have been able to squeeze my horse in among his or her many other more urgent appointments that day for a therapeutic massage? Probably not. But I had the luxury of making the call.
How does this act affect the average horse owner? It depends on the state in which you live and whether it adopts the AVMA Model Practice Act or other restrictions. Some state laws could complicate your ability to choose the treatment and practitioner you want. The AVMA and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, which adopted AVMA’s Guidelines for Complementary Medicine, mandate that all types of veterinary medicine should be held to the same standards. While this belief is certainly well intentioned, it’s simply not realistic all over this huge country and in every circumstance.
Currently in many states, it’s a “buyer beware” situation; for instance, in some states anyone can hang out a shingle and become a massage therapist. It’s up to the consumer (horse owner) to research therapists’ credentials and decide whom you trust with your horse.
Some proponents insist that it’s the veterinarian’s duty to make time to oversee these procedures and practices. Perhaps some veterinarians have time available, but most don’t. And as specialization becomes even more common, it’s also conceivable that some veterinarians would prefer to have other practitioners handle areas they don’t wish to practice, especially dentistry or therapeutic massage, which can be physically demanding tasks.
In the best possible world, horse owners, veterinarians and other horse care professionals would work together seamlessly. Non-veterinary horse care workers are a vital link in the chain that horse owners rely on to keep their animals happy and healthy. In some regions, where veterinarians are in high demand, it would be close to impossible to arrange for a therapist and veterinarian to meet at the barn concurrently for “direct supervision.”
This issue is a balancing act. Certainly we want protection against unqualified or unscrupulous “therapists.” But so many of us rely on these practitioners that state laws and association guidelines must allow us to continue to use their services without being unnecessarily weighed down by needless rules that don’t actually protect our horses.