For many horse owners, equine massage therapy has become an important feature of the care they provide for their animals.

“We’ve decided that horses should be athletes, and they pay price for it,” says Celeste Kelly, a certified equine massage therapist in Tucson with more than 10 years’ experience who has spent much of her life working with horses.

But Kelly says she fears her livelihood working with the animals she loves could be in jeopardy.

She’s one of three plaintiffs in a recently filed lawsuit against the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board. It claims the board has tried to use the force of regulation to prevent animal massage therapists from plying their trade.

The suit, filed Wednesday in Maricopa County Superior Court, says the state board has attempted to use “arbitrary, excessive and unreasonable government regulations” against therapists like Kelly by mandating they be licensed veterinarians before practicing animal massage professionally.

“There’s no connection between the regulation and the underlying activity,” said Diana Simpson, an attorney with Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice. The group filed the suit on behalf of Kelly and fellow animal massage therapists Grace Granatelli and Stacey Kollman.

The complaint accuses the board of violations of the due-process and equal-privileges-and-immunities protections under the Arizona Constitution, saying the plaintiffs were subject to unreasonable application of the state’s veterinary regulations.

The complaint also says the state violated the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs argue that the state board would effectively force them to spend years in school and spend money to complete a veterinary sciences program to legally practice a nonmedical form of therapy.

Victoria Whitmore, director of the Arizona Veterinary Medical Examining Board, said Friday that the board had been served with the suit only late Thursday and members hadn’t had the chance to review it. Whitmore did provide an emailed statement.

“Protecting the health and safety of the general public and animals in our state in accordance with Arizona statutes is the board’s primary role,” the statement reads. “The board considers each case and circumstance individually, with our mission in mind. Because of the pending nature of the lawsuit, we are unable to comment further at this time.”

Before 2012, Kelly had no idea she was doing anything potentially against the law. But in late August of that year, Kelly received notice from the board’s investigations division notifying her that as result of an anonymous complaint she was the subject of an inquiry.

The notice said she was suspected of providing veterinary services without a license.

“It was like somebody pulled the rug out from under me,” Kelly said.

She responded by letter disputing the claim, saying she provides no medical advice or diagnostic veterinary services. Rather, she offers body massages to the animals — a trade she studied to master and for which she holds a private accreditation.

In October 2012, the board voted to issue Kelly a cease-and-desist order and warned her of potential additional legal actions if she did not comply.

“They never called me, they never told me when my issue would be discussed at a meeting,” Kelly said.

She later contacted a lawyer who tried to intervene, but all the communications to the board went unanswered, Kelly said.

Simpson, the attorney, said the board has been allowed a very liberal interpretation of state laws defining veterinary work.

“The language of the statute is so broad that it includes almost anything anyone does to an animal for money,” Simpson said.

The statute says veterinary licensing requirements apply to anyone offering to “perform any operation or manipulation on or apply any apparatus or appliance to any animal … any instruction or demonstration for the cure, amelioration, correction or reduction or modification of any animal condition, disease, deformity, defect, wound or injury.”

Jonathan Rudinger, president of the Toldeo, Ohio-based International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork, said such broadly written language is common across the country.

“That would mean you could never have your dog groomed or have your horse shoed,” Rudinger said of statutes like Arizona’s.

He said statutes written with such a wide range left for interpretation often result from a lack of knowledge on the part of lawmakers.

In other states, Rudinger said, there have been some successes in lobbying legislators to exempt animal massage practitioners or create separate licensing categories.

The state of Washington, for example, licenses animal massage practitioners who can demonstrate 100 hours of training and meet other standards set in state law.

Rudinger said state-level licensing helps to normalize the trades, lend legitimacy and provide some perspective. “You don’t need to be a veterinarian to be a horse trainer.”

Kelly agreed, saying massage isn’t medicine, but horses do respond positively to the treatment.

She said nature designed horses as giant lawnmowers, but domestication and generations of selective breeding have turned them into high-performance athletes. And just like human athletes, horses experience muscle pains and aches that can diminish performance and lead to long-term damage.

“Horse owners have the right to choose the care they want for their animals,” Kelly said.

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or