You can Lead a Horse to Water


The tradition of shrimp fishing dates back to the 13th century, but it is an art that almost died out. Not long ago, only three mounted shrimp fisherman remained. That number has grown to 19 as people in the Belgian village of Oostduinkerke work to sustain their cultural heritage.

Mounted shrimp fisherman
Mounted shrimp fisherman in Oostduinkerke. Photo credit: Gigi Embrechts

“The strong Brabant horses walk breast-deep in the surf in Oostduinkerke, parallel to the coastline, pulling funnel-shaped nets held open by two wooden boards. A chain dragged over the sand creates vibrations, causing the shrimp to jump into the net. Shrimpers place the catch (which is later cooked and eaten) in baskets hanging at the horses’ sides.”

— Unesco

Fishing does not come naturally to the horses. The strong Brabant draft horses needed to pull the heavy nets must be trained to enter the ocean, where they are guided by their riders to the areas populated by grey shrimp. Once a horse is found, it stays with the fisherman for life.

“The first time a horse sees the sea and the waves, you can see it running back,” said d’Hulster. “They don’t like it.”

“There is such a love story between the horse and the fisherman,” he said. “Once he has a horse that works, he is married to the horse. Sometimes we say we like our horses more than our wife.”

New York Times – Horseback Shrimp fishing fades in Belgium

Shrimp fishing takes place twice a week during the season, and each horse brings back between 22 and 44 pounds of fish per day. Gone are the days when mounted fisherman used their catch to fertilize their fields; today the gray shrimp they catch are boiled and served up to tourists, sometimes right on the beach.

For a longer video and a profile of another of the fishing families, please watch the video from Unesco, below.

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