I adore giant horses, the bigger the gentler as far as I am concerned. So, when Claire from Equipassion UK invited me along on her photographic trip to Oostduinkerke to watch Belgian draught horses traditionally shrimp fishing, I jumped at the chance. I had very little knowledge about the shrimp fisherman on horseback but delving into this century old but unchanged tradition on the Belgian coast, I really wanted to see this for myself.
Oostduinkerke is within easy reach from the UK, so with a very early but easy ferry crossing, we made our way to the sandy beaches of this coastal town in West Flanders. Arriving at a quite modern and clean town, I was surprised how undated it was. I had imagined a place very grey and bleak for some reason but Oostduinkerke was far from it.
Claire had arranged for us to meet with Eddy d’Hulster, one of the many shrimp fisherman that lives in the town and is passionate keeping fishing with horses alive in the modern day. With the skies turning grey trying to rain, we met two other fishermen who were getting into their famous yellow waterproofs and sorting the horse carts with their nets, baskets and sieves. Moments later they appeared walking with two stunning Brabant horses with their heavy hooves clomping in rhythm. They quickly “tack up”, attach the carts and then head on their way to the beach on the Koksijde.
The seafront quickly becomes a horse parade where the fisherman meet and give the public an opportunity to greet the horses and look at their craft and fishing equipment in more detail. It is not long before they make their way along the long soft sandy beach, with the town’s residents and tourists all following behind to the sea edge. It is quite a sight to behold as I held back to take some photos, watching these strong horses make their way down to the surf. Claire was lucky to hitch a ride in one of the carts, so had a hands on view what it is like heading towards the water with these majestic horses. Most of the crowd, including myself had to stand back as a swathe of deep water stopped us going further, but the horses strode through with ease. With a strong sandbank to hold them, the funnel-shaped nets are then placed on to the horses held open by two wooden boards. The fisherman then mount the horses and prepare for the day’s shrimp fishing.
Walking parallel to the coastline, the chains are dragged over the sand with the horses slowly plodding their way with the sea water lapping around their deep chests. With the fisherman’s good knowledge of the coastline together with respect and trust for their horses, they make their way gracefully through the seawater with the shrimp jumping into the nets. They are out to sea for about half an hour making light work of the salty terrain and then return to the sandbank to empty the nets. The beach becomes beset with a flock of seagulls all waiting to see the day’s catch. While the horses rest, the fisherman start shaking the wooden sieves to sort the famous brown shrimp from this last stretch of the North Sea which it is so famous for. Any unwanted sea life is thrown back into the sea, while the shrimp is placed into the huge baskets that the draughts horses carry side by side.
With high winds and pretty rough seas, the fisherman decide to make their way back to the top of the beach rather than head off back for a second catch. We all follow in convoy behind the carts looking forward to seeing the shrimps being cooked traditionally on the seafront. The crowd gathers around a huge skillet which is heated by gas and watch the brown shrimp being thrown on to the cast iron to cook. Some fisherman cook with the salt water from the sea but fresh water was used with added salt, which hissed into plumes of steam with the smell of shrimp cooking in the air. The horses stand calmly while their work is being cooked and the public all gather around them, showing their appreciation for these stunning animals. Being a lover of giants in the horse world, I spent a lot of time with them inhaling that “horse smell” (that I miss since losing my horse) which had also a scent of sea salt too.
Once the shrimp have been cooked, they are then handed to the crowd, for free, to eat. Its fiddly work removing the shells or a couple were so small you just eat whole. But they were extremely tasty especially appreciating the work involved in getting these from the sea to the plate. Once finished, the fisherman gather up and then slowly disappear clip clopping their way through the streets of Oostduinkerke, heaading home with their much loved horses.
Claire and I did wonder how this tradition is funded, especially as the shrimp was given away to the tourists for nothing? After some research, Oostduinkerke’s tourist board supports the fisherman because of the tourists it attracts to the town but also keeps this way of fishing alive. Thirty years ago, the fisherman could make a good living on shrimp fishing but those days have sadly passed and need support to keep it going. The fisherman however love and look after their own horses themselves. They are simply dedicated to this way of life and all us horse lovers understand and respect that. Training new horses to this work takes time, with many running back from the lapping sea but with patience and dedication, they learn to accept the sea and work with the waves. Most fishermen keep their horses for their lifetime, with the trust between them extremely strong. It would have to be when facing the sometimes strong currents from the North Sea.
The tradition is thankfully being passed on to the younger generation and I noticed some of the fisherman were younger in years. I very much hope that this way of fishing carries on in the modern day, as it also preserves this lovely breed of horse. Oostduinkerke is the only place in the world where shrimp fishing is carried out using horses and I felt very privileged watching these horses and their loyal fisherman at work on this atmospheric coastline in Belgium. I urge you to add this visit to your travelling bucket list and you certainly do not have to be a horse lover to appreciate it. But if equine love runs through your veins, this is a visit you would never forget.
by Samantha Hobden
Image credits: Header Equipassion UK, Haynet and Wikimedia Commons
A very big thank you to Claire Owen from Equipassion UK, a clever equine photographer who I accompanied on the trip. Please come and visit her website which shows other foreign trips she has taken photographing horses. Please follow her on Facebook and Instagram
Thank you to Eddy d’Hulstar, one of the Belgium fisherman, who was so accommodating showing us his horses and inviting us to his home to see them being prepared for the day’s shrimp fishing.
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