Going Rogue: The Texas Vet Board’s war on horse owners and entrepreneurs in the Lone Star State

Clark Neily Senior Attorney, Institute for Justice
Font Size:

Mired in debt and facing a jobless recovery, America’s future rests on the shoulders of the small businesses and entrepreneurs who have always been the primary engine of the nation’s economy.

In the 1950s, less than five percent of the American workforce was subject to occupational licensing; today the number is 30 percent and climbing.

The nation’s entrepreneurs are drowning in a sea of red tape at precisely the time when we need them the most.  And with more bureaucracy and red tape comes more potential for government abuse of power.

That is precisely what is happening in Austin, where a rogue agency called the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners has—in open defiance of the law, the legislature, and the clearly expressed will of the people—declared bureaucratic war on a small but vital group of entrepreneurs called horse teeth floaters.

Horses’ teeth grow throughout their lifetimes and must be filed down from time to time to ensure proper shape and alignment.  For centuries, that service has been performed by specialized “teeth floaters,” whose knowledge of equine dentistry often far exceeds that of state-licensed veterinarians.  But some veterinarians resent competition from teeth floaters and have begun asking their friends on state veterinary boards to shut them down, notwithstanding the vital role floaters play, along with farriers, trainers and countless other trades, in America’s multi-billion dollar horse industry.

For years, the Texas vet board specifically recognized and approved teeth floating by non-veterinarians.  A committee assigned to study the issue in 2004 found that horse owners “are generally happy with the results and the fees for services” by teeth floaters, whereas “[m]ost veterinarians do not feel comfortable performing dental procedures” due to their lack of training and experience.  The committee concluded that “[t]here are not enough veterinarians skilled in equine dentistry to meet the public’s needs.”

But none of that mattered in the fall of 2006, when the president of the state veterinary association demanded that the vet board shut down non-veterinarian floaters and force them, in effect, to turn over their thriving businesses to state-licensed veterinarians.

And that is precisely what the vet board did in early 2007, sending out waves of cease-and-desist letters to floaters without determining how the new policy would affect horse owners and in complete disregard of state-mandated rulemaking procedures.  The board even cancelled a public “stakeholder” meeting that had been set for April 30, 2007, based on one board member’s cynical concern that a public hearing might prompt legislative intervention on behalf of the floaters.

When called to account by a group of practitioners and horse owners who filed suit in August 2007 challenging its sudden about-face, the vet board has been consistently duplicitous and evasive.  At first, the board denied that it had changed its teeth-floating policy, stalling the lawsuit for two years until that falsehood was rejected by the courts.  Without missing a beat, the board then acknowledged that in fact it had changed its teeth-floating policy, but claimed any challenge to its failure to observe rulemaking procedures was barred by the statute of limitations.

The vet board’s latest gambit has been to propose a new rule that would allow non-veterinarians to use hand tools when floating horses’ teeth, while requiring licensed veterinarians to supervise any activities involving power tools.  But power tools are perfectly safe and have been used by floaters for more than a century without problems.

Moreover, as noted in the vet board’s own 2004 study, most veterinarians lack sufficient training or experience to properly perform teeth floating, so the notion that they have any business supervising it is absurd.

The Texas vet board will take up the proposed rule during its next meeting on September 10 in Austin.  At a public hearing last month, horse owners and state-licensed veterinarians both came out against the rule—horse owners because the rule is too restrictive of their right to choose who works on their horses, and veterinarians because it isn’t restrictive enough.

There are more than one million horses in Texas and six thousand working veterinarians; only a small fraction of those veterinarians have the ability to properly float horses’ teeth.  Despite recognizing that “[t]here are not enough veterinarians skilled in equine dentistry to meet the public’s needs,” the vet board stands poised to give them a monopoly on teeth floating in Texas.

Horses and bureaucrats do have one thing in common—they both produce a lot of fertilizer.

Clark Neily is a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, which is representing a group of horse owners and horse teeth floaters challenging the vet board’s anti-competitive regulation of teeth floaters.