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A horse massage instructor from Becker is suing the state of Minnesota in federal court, alleging that her First Amendment rights were violated when regulators warned her that she would have to shut down if she does not apply for a license to continue teaching her clinics.

For 10 years, Leda Mox has taught courses from a barn in Becker on how to massage horses and dogs. She said her business, Armstrong Equine Massage Therapy, has enrolled more than 400 students.

The classes teach massage techniques and strokes that can be used to stimulate blood flow to different areas of the horse's body. The goal is to bring in oxygen and nutrients while removing lactic acid buildup and other metabolic waste, according to the business's website.

Mox has a bachelor's degree in equine science and said she views caring for animals as her calling in life. She said she thinks she is the only person offering paid training in horse massage in the state.

In March, Mox received a letter from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education informing her that she would have to shut down unless she applied for a license. Mox said she was surprised, and immediately concerned that the costs of the process would put her out of business.

"I don't think that the government stepping in to approve anything would help because I don't think there's anybody there that knows about equine massage," Mox said Friday in an interview.

The process includes a $2,500 initial licensing fee, $500 for each additional program and annual renewal costs of $1,150, plus more for additional programs, the lawsuit states. Regular inspections would be required.

The civil rights lawsuit names Dennis Olson Jr., commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, as the defendant. It was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court. The office said in an email it does not comment on pending litigation.

In its letter to Mox, the state office cited a law regulating "private career schools," such as the one Mox runs. Other such enterprises listed on the state's website include barber and cosmetology schools, and programs for anyone interested in opening a yoga studio.

Mox's attorneys agree that her business qualifies under the state's requirement. But they say that violates her right to free speech within her occupation.

Mox's students range from casual pet owners to those interested in starting their own massage business. Because some are using her classes to learn in order to open their own business and earn certification, the state requires Mox to become licensed.

"Just because you're getting paid to talk to someone, it doesn't mean your speech is any less protected," said attorney Jeff Redfern of the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit law firm that handles constitutional cases against the government.

Mox operates as the sole owner and employee of her massage business.

The suit alleges that Mox's right to speech is burdened by the regulation process and its accompanying costs. The process could also lead to mandatory costs if Mox were ordered to upgrade her facilities as part of inspections, she said.

The suit states that because massage training is nothing more than teaching job skills, it's protected as free speech similar to many other niche kinds of instruction that aren't regulated.

"If Leda taught personal development, modeling, acting, or even horseback riding classes," she would not be forced to get a license and she could earn a living the Act would not apply, and she could earn a living as she wishes, the suit states.