Tradition to end after this year

Curtain falls for veterinary medicine students’ short track trotting

Sulky die wordt voorgetrokken door dravend paard
The last lustrum celebrations in 2017. Photo: DUB

Before the summer break, it was still up in the air whether the anniversary celebrations of the study association DSK, meant for students of Veterinary Medicine, could take place in the way students had planned it. Political parties Partij voor de Dieren (the Party on Behalf of Animals, Ed.) en GroenLinks (Green Left), alongside the Utrecht Vegan Student Association and the municipal board, do not appreciate the idea of a trotting horse race. There have been numerous attempts to ban race, but all of them failed.

The end of a long tradition
“We’re happy that our lustrum celebrations are going to take place at Maliebaan,” says Vice-president Matthijs on behalf of the DSK board. “But this will be the final edition of the event in this format and location.” There are two reasons for this. The first one is practical: the Maliebaan is set to be thoroughly renovated. The second is content-related: “The current discussion about animal welfare led us to question whether short-track trotting is the right way for Veterinary Medicine students to shine a light on their activities for the general public.”

This means a long tradition will be coming to an end. The first Maliebaan Day was organised in 1982, featuring short-track trotting, an elimination race in which two horses compete directly against each other, racing 300 metres while pulling a sulky. The race became a traditional part of every lustrum celebration. DSK's ninetieth anniversary actually coincides with the 200th anniversary of the study programme.

“Of course, we regret to say goodbye to this deeply-rooted tradition but at the same time we are aware that society’s ideas about animals have changed. We think it’s important to listen to that, which is why in our next lustrum we’re going to find a different way to shine a light on Veterinary Medicine”

Twee dravende paarden die een sulky voorttrekken

Don’t instrumentalise animals
The DSK students found themselves in hot water this spring, when the trotting race was announced. Steven Bensdorp, then-treasurer of the Vegan Student Association (VSA), adamantly opposed the event.  The current president of the association, who lives near Maliebaan, got a letter from DSK in which the study association announced its anniversary activities, asking if anyone objected to their plans. VSA – which vehemently opposes the instrumentalisation of animals - then contacted the Utrecht-based branch of the political party Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD).

Both VSA and PvdD are concerned about the animals’ wellbeing. In their view, animals should not be used in events or sports. Saskia Oskam, from PvdD, says that tradition is often used as an excuse to justify the exploitation of animals. In her view, there is never a reason to do so. Steven, from VSA, negates the argument that, as Veterinary Medicine students, DSK members would safeguard the horses' wellbeing. He compares the situation to slavery: “If you have a slave and you treat them well, that still doesn’t justify slavery, does it?”

No legitimate grounds for refusal
PvdD asked a few questions to the alderwoman responsible for the event, Linda Voortman, who was asked to revoke the permit. She was willing to try because, in 2019, the municipality adopted a policy of not approving that animals could have a role in events, but she was unable to. Animal welfare is not legitimate grounds for refusal, so it has to be taken care of through the national legislature.

The alderwoman then tried to prevent DSK from obtaining its 20,000 euro grant, citing that the horse race “violates the recognition of the intrinsic value of the animal: it shows little respect, degrading the animal to a plaything”. DSK objected; the case was ruled in their favour.

“Our profession is about animal wellbeing; that’s embedded in every aspect of our study programme. As future veterinarians, we wouldn’t organise an event that jeopardises animal wellbeing,” says Matthijs. “We encourage the discussion about animal wellbeing. That’s why we invited both the Vegan Student Association and the PvdD: because like them, we’re supporters of animal wellbeing.”

Twee sulky's met paarden op de harddraverijbaan

Not animal friendly
Partij voor de Dieren sees it as good news that the trotting will come to an end but thinks that the event will still take place this year. PvdD did not respond to the invitation for a talk with the Veterinary Medicine students. “We do not wish to cooperate in any way on an animal-unfriendly event that shouldn’t take place,” Oskam says. She has more than four hundred people on her side who joined her in the PvdD’s online protest ‘Object to the horse racing at Maliebaan’.

VSA students will find another moment to sit with the DSK study association, and will join the PvdD in protesting the short track trotting. This will be done peacefully, in such a way that it will not disturb the horses, they say. Oskam: “Animal wellbeing is our top priority.” The vegan students say that they “absolutely do not wish to spook the horses” with their protest. “We’re actually more afraid that the audience will startle the horses with unexpected movements or sounds.”