When It Comes to Free Speech, IJ Isn’t Horsing Around

Bobbi Taylor
Bobbi Taylor  ·  February 1, 2024

Leda Mox has a passion for horses. She’s been riding and caring for horses since she was a child, and even skipped her high school graduation to earn a certification in horse massage. Combining her love of horses and her entrepreneurial spirit, Leda started a now-thriving small business, Armstrong Equine Massage, on her farm in Becker, Minnesota. But now Minnesota bureaucrats are threatening to shut her down unless she complies with a burdensome regulatory scheme. 

Horse massage may sound like an unusual concept. But horses are athletes—and, just like human athletes, they benefit from massage therapy. Leda has been massaging horses for almost 30 years and has seen firsthand how massage therapy helps horses recover from injury and maintain flexibility. Ten years ago, Leda saw an opportunity when fellow horse owners and trainers started asking about her massage therapy techniques. Realizing others could benefit from learning these skills, she started offering horse massage classes. Leda even checked first with the state to ensure she could teach her classes legally. Minnesota had no concerns. And why would it? Horse massage is not regulated by any government agency in the state. All certifications are done through private instruction.

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Since then, Leda has taught horse massage to over 400 students. Each student practices on 10 horses to pass the class, meaning thousands of horses are benefiting from her work. Some of her students have even gone on to start horse massage businesses themselves. But when the state learned Leda was teaching her classes to aspiring professionals, it suddenly claimed she needed their permission to continue. Under Minnesota law, her operation is now a “private career school.” That label means thousands of dollars in application fees, an annual licensing fee, a burdensome application process, and an annual audit. Further, Leda’s curriculum is now subject to approval by state officials before she can teach it. But no one in that office is more qualified to develop and teach a horse massage curriculum than Leda.

The law at issue classifies “avocational” speech differently than “vocational” speech, meaning that if what you’re teaching is how to make a living, you’re subject to regulation. Otherwise, you’re fine. But teaching is just speech—protected by the First Amendment—so the government needs a compelling justification to regulate it. There’s no good reason to make Leda seek approval to do something she’s been doing for a decade without incident. And there’s certainly no compelling reason Leda can teach horse massage to someone who wants to use the skill recreationally but not to someone who wants to use it to make a living.

This case adds to IJ’s increasingly successful occupational speech practice. California ponied up when it repealed a law blocking access to trade schools following an IJ victory for horseshoeing instructor Bob Smith in the 9th Circuit. Now IJ and Leda are carrying that momentum forward in another jurisdiction to defend the rights of all Minnesotans to teach valuable skills—without government interference—to people who want to learn.

Bobbi Taylor is an IJ attorney.

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