Navigating equine health industry regulations

Equine health professional laws and regulations vary widely depending on where you live, and that makes it difficult to determine who can practice which therapies. Here are some general guidelines and tips to help you select the best professionals to work on your horse.

Our horses are precious to us. They are our companions and competitive partners, and we invest a great deal of time, energy, and resources into maintaining them and making them happy. So when it comes time to find someone to do your horse’s teeth, make a chiropractic adjustment, or give him a massage, choosing a practitioner can be a little daunting. Naturally, you want the best! But how do you know what to look for? Who is qualified to do what? How much education should they have? What are the rules and regulations for practicing?

Getting to know your local laws

It is important for you to familiarize yourself with the latest regulations where you live, in terms of who can practice which therapies. “The details can vary considerably and can change without notice,” says veterinarian and American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association representative Dr. Joyce Harman.

Most states restrict acupuncture to vets and many states restrict chiropractic, osteopathy and spinal manipulation to vets. However a number of states allow human practitioners to perform these therapies, usually if they have had additional specific animal education. Massage is generally less regulated, although a few states have attempted to include it as veterinary medicine, and acupressure will fall under massage therapy, unless a person is making a medical diagnosis.”

Homeopathy, it seems, falls into a gray area, because it may not be specifically defined in a state practice act. “If a practitioner is diagnosing and treating a medical condition, it could be considered practicing veterinary medicine,” explains Dr. Harman. “If lay practitioners are suggesting remedies in the context of a wellness nutritional consult, it may be allowed.”

In an effort to create higher standards and professionalism in the animal massage and acupressure world, the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage was formed in 2008. “As animal massage and acupressure evolve as a profession, it becomes more and more important to have groups such as NBCAAM that promote a standard that not only creates a level playing field, but encourage practitioners to strive for a higher level of education and practice,” explains Vice Chair Lola Michelin.

“More and more states are looking at proper ways to regulate animal therapies and ensure that providers are not simply throwing out a shingle, as was often the case in the past,” she continues. “For example, in Washington State, animal massage practitioners are licensed by the State Department of Health as health care professionals. States such as Colorado, Oregon and Arizona require training programs to meet certain criteria in their curriculum to be approved. And a task force was established in California to determine the role of animal health care providers in the field of animal rehabilitation.”

Choosing a professional

So once you have browsed the regulations for your area, what should you look for in a professional?

When it comes to equine bodywork, Lola advises: “I would not hire a provider to perform bodywork on my horses with less than 200 hours of training specific to their modality, preferably more, and I would want that individual to express to me through conversation or their materials that their Scope of Practice did not include diagnosis, treatment or prognosis of veterinary conditions.”

Asking for a referral from a veterinarian, trainer or other professional in the field is another good way to find out what experiences former clients have had with a provider and whether or not the provider acted professionally, adds Lola. “Practitioners should also carry liability insurance and be able to provide that information if asked.”

Dr. Harman advises us to use common sense. “Be suspicious of anyone who guarantees the outcome, since nothing in medicine is totally predictable,” she warns. “Be very suspicious of people who pressure you into anything you are uncomfortable with, be it multiple sessions, expensive supplements, rough adjustments, or promises that do not seem to be happening.”

Reporting unqualified practitioners

Regardless of how many amazing professionals there are in the world, there will always be “bad apples” – people with little knowledge and education just trying to make a quick dollar. If you come across such a person, there are a few ways to handle it.

“A State Board of Veterinary Medicine exists in every state,” says Dr. Harman. “They are most responsive to animal owners who complain or who have had bad experiences. If the practice being reported falls under the practice of veterinary medicine, they usually will respond and try to stop a person from practicing.”

Lola recommends that you refuse to let anyone working outside of the Scope of Practice to work on your horse. “You can also share your concerns with other horse owners and professionals, and report that individual to a governing body such as the veterinary board of the Board of Unlicensed Practice Acts in their state,” she adds.

Of course, it is important to know the definitions and regulations in your state before accusing someone of unqualified work. A practitioner could suffer duress, loss of income, legal expenses and irreparable damage to his or her reputation if falsely accused — as could you, as the accuser.

Veterinarians and bodyworkers – creating a wellness team

It is vital that the members of your horse’s healthcare team all work well together, so try to find good professionals who work together and recommend each other. Veterinarians can often be a bit wary of bodyworkers, as they’ve often heard of and experienced cases in which a “professional” abused their powers or overstepped their bounds and education.

“I can appreciate the concerns expressed by many in the field of veterinary medicine,” empathizes Lola. “I am a former veterinary technician and I have practiced massage for over 30 years. In the past, there was such a range of quality in provider and training that some veterinarians had good cause to be concerned.” One concern from the veterinary community in the past was that people offering these services lacked education and overstepped their boundaries, potentially steering animal owners away from proper veterinary care. However, in Lola’s experience, there exists a great opportunity for the bodyworker and veterinarian to create a collaborative relationship that supports the horse owner, lengthens the horse’s career and improves health and well-being.

In other cases, there are obvious reasons why only veterinarians are typically allowed to perform certain therapies, such as acupuncture and chiropractic. “The training required to perform many of the therapies is currently only given to veterinarians,” explains Dr. Harman. “Acupuncture involves inserting needles into the horse’s body, and while this is normally a very safe procedure, accidents can happen. Needles have been broken off and in some cases require surgery to remove. It is considered an invasive procedure. Spinal manipulation in its various forms is the most abused of all the modalities, and the most harm is done by incorrect work.” In many cases, the horse can sadly be permanently damaged by rough manipulation.

Buyer beware

At the end of the day, we are our horses’ guardians, and it is our responsibility to do our research and find the best professionals we can to work on our horses. Be sure to support those who provide exemplary service and recommend them to your fellow equestrians. Lola advises: “By doing our own due diligence when choosing a bodyworker, trainer, veterinarian, farrier, or any other service provider, we can effectively eliminate those who would practice ‘under the radar’ or outside their scope, and encourage those who show dedication and skill in continuing to provide the highest level of care possible.”