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Nebraska could end massage licensing

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) There are plenty of options for people looking for a massage in Nebraska, but if you're a horse, you're out of luck.

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Nebraska doesn't have a single licensed equine massage therapist, and lawmakers who recently chipped away at regulations governing various other professions blame an expensive and rigorous process that even includes the prospect of jail time for violators.

''It flies in the face of reason that you need that much more education just to massage a horse,'' said Karen Hough, a rural Nebraskan who is unable to massage horses because of the regulations.

Horse massage sounds quirky, but it's a common practice in much of the country for high-performance horses, helping to increase their range of motion and relieve tension.

Under the measure being debated this week in the Legislature, Nebraska would join 13 other states that don't require licenses for massaging a horse. Most of the others don't have the per capita horse count of Nebraska, where there are an estimated 150,000 horses - about one for every 12 citizens.

While horse massage is the current focus in Nebraska, it's part of a larger national trend - particularly in Republican-controlled states - to reduce barriers to licensing, said Suzanne Hultin from the National Council of State Legislatures. In the 1950s, about one job out of 20 in the U.S. required a license. Today, around one out of every four professions is licensed, she said. Five states now don't even require licenses to massage humans.

Nebraska has about 200 professions that require state licenses, ranging from potato shippers and athletic trainers to elevator repair technicians and doctors. On average, each state has about 90 licensed professions. The horse massage bill, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Mike Groene, is part of a multi-year bipartisan effort to reduce licensing requirements across a range of professions.

Obtaining an equine massage therapist license in Nebraska requires a veterinarian degree or completion of 1,000 hours of classes to become a licensed human massage therapist and an additional 150 class hours to receive an animal therapist license. No Nebraska schools offer the needed animal therapy courses.

Hough took equine massage therapy courses from a Colorado company and for five years massaged horses at her isolated central Nebraska farm, about 250 miles west of Omaha. She charged $30 for each massage.

In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services issued Hough a cease-and-desist notice after she called the agency to learn about becoming licensed. She was told she would have to stop massaging horses or face up to 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. She stopped doing the work and set out on what has become a seven-year quest to create new regulations.

''The kids were disappointed I couldn't massage their horses anymore,'' Hough said. ''So I told them, `In America, we don't break the law, we change it!'''

Opponents of the change, however, argue that without proper education therapists could harm the animal or miss an underlying health problem. The American Massage Therapy Association and several animal chiropractors have signed up in opposition to the bill.

Groene argues that in a state where horses generate an estimated $700 million annually in supplies and services, it doesn't make sense to restrict equine massage.

''It's an industry,'' he said. ''They eat a lot of oats, they do a lot of business with veterinarians, but they can't find a masseuse in the state of Nebraska. This is serious. It's affecting our ag economy.''

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