Every half hour, the fisherman and horse return to the shore to rest and sort through the catch. David Edgar/CC BY-SA 3.0
Dominique Vandendriessche has shrimp fishing in
his blood. Now in his twenties, Vandendriessche lives and works on the
Belgian coast, in the small town of Oostduinkerke, where he is one of
the last fishermen alive who catches shrimp from the back of a horse. As
a little boy, he says,
he accompanied his parents to the shore and watched as his father,
Johan, made his way into the waves on the back of a towering Belgian
draft horse. Now, Vandendriessche is carrying on the family profession, accompanied by his horse, Jim.
Oostduinkerke is on the southern edge of
the frigid North Sea. Its beach is flat and empty, sloping gently into
the water, without obstructions or obstacles. From the shore, the water
looks unremarkable, if a little chilly. But beneath its surface is an
abundance of tiny crustaceans: common, grey-brown shrimp that cluster in
shallow waters. Not even two inches long, they are a gourmet treat,
served cold as tomate-crevette—hollowed-out beefsteak tomatoes,
filled with a tangle of shrimp and mayonnaise—or hot, in a deep-fried,
battered croquette. More simply, they are sometimes boiled in lightly
salted water and served whole, as a snack alongside local craft ales.
First, however, they must be caught. The fishermen, known in Flemish as paardenvissers,
ride Brabant horses, a regional breed that is large and sturdy
(generally around 5’7”, or 16 hands, at the withers), with dense
feathering on their lower legs, flaring out over their hooves like the
bell of a trumpet. The Vandendriessches have six. A few times a week,
they harness a chosen horse to a cart via a special wooden saddle and
bring it down to the shore. The cart is piled high with equipment—nets,
clothes, baskets, and sieves—and the fisherman must perch on its side.
On the grey-blue beach, beset with flocks
of seagulls, the horse waits while the fisherman pulls yellow
waterproofs over his clothes—pants, secured around the ankles with
twine, and a hooded oilskin. The pair walk into the waves, rider on
horseback, until the horse is breast-deep in the surf, jerking its head
to avoid the seawater that licks at its nostrils.
Behind them, a 30-foot funnel-shaped net
stretches back into the waves. As the horse walks, a chain dragged over
the sand creates vibrations—causing the shrimp to jump into the net as
gaily as if they’d been called for supper. Slowly, they go to and fro,
walking the length of the flat coastline, as the net fills with shrimp.
Once every half hour, they return to the beach: The horse has a few
moments to rest as the fisherman empties the net, using wooden sieves to
sift through the catch.
Pêche aux crevettes à cheval
FilmImages Published on Feb 24, 2017 11 min. 53 sec.
Pêche aux crevettes à cheval en Flandre, Belgique. Oostduinkerke, Koksijde (Coxyde), 12 août 1934. De Panne (La Panne) 18 juillet 1929.
Rushes de Fox Movietone. Archives commercialisées par Film Images (www.film-images.fr).
Belgian horse fishermen. Shrimp fishing. Filmed on August 12, 1934 and on July 18, 1929. Koksijde (Belgium), Coxyde, North Sea coast in the southwest of the Flemish province of West Flanders.
Oostduinkerke. De Panne (Belgium), La Panne.
Pour un usage professionnel, les clips présentés sur cette chaîne sont accessibles en ligne sur www.film-images.fr (vous vous créez votre compte utilisateur).
Jellyfish, small fish, and other unwanted
sea life are jettisoned back into the ocean, while the shrimp are
placed into vast baskets dangling by the horse’s sides. Once they have
enough, perhaps 20 or 30 pounds of shrimp, they will return home, where
the shrimp are washed, and washed, and washed again before being boiled
in a pot over an open flame. (Exactly what each fisherman adds to their
pot is a closely-kept secret.) When their sand-colored shells turn a
deep puce, the shrimp are ready to be sold on the beachfront or to local
cafés. It is labor-intensive and unprofitable: In 2007, fisherman Eddy
d’Hulster told the New York Times
that the tourist board makes up the shortfall by providing free
pastures and stables and financial stipends that help cover equipment
The process looks slow and meditative—the
horse and rider winding back and forth—but the practice requires
considerable skill and knowledge of the ocean, tides, and the horses
themselves, says D’Hulster. “The fisherman must love their horse, the
sea, and the fishing. It’s a combination of all three.” Choosing the
right horse is a crucial part of the equation, D’Hulster told the Times.
“The first time a horse sees the sea and the waves, you can see it
running back. They don’t like it.” But the right horse is a lifelong
companion. “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.” The
two must trust one another absolutely, especially in the face of
occasionally strong currents.
Barely a century ago, shrimp fishing on
horseback was a common sight along the Belgian coast and throughout
Europe, preserved in thepaintings of 20th-century Belgian artist Edgard Farasijn. But it’s fallen victim to urbanization, commercial fishing boats,
each of which can pull in 75 tons a year, and dwindling interest from
town residents. That’s part of the reason why Oostduinkerke wants to
protect the practice and ensure it isn’t forgotten. In the summertime,
children and tourists congregate around the fishermen on the beach
while, in nearby Koksijde, the National Fisheries Museum chronicles the
history and culture of horseback shrimp fishing. This attention, along
with a handful of media appearances and a coveted spot on the UNESCO
intangible heritage list, helps fund the tourism board that, in turn,
keeps the trade alive—albeit as a museum piece.
Each family, therefore, continues much as
they have for years or generations. The Vandendriessches have a strict
division of labor: Dominique and his father fish; his mother cleans and
cooks, serving the shrimps in their family restaurant. According to
Marina Laureys, from Belgium’s Arts and Heritage Agency, “Since
knowledge is often passed on within the households, families teach their
children at a young age how to handle the horse in the specific
conditions that the craft requires.”
knowledge encompasses all aspects of the trade—weaving the nets,
maintaining the wooden apparatus, the actual fishing—along with the
ins-and-outs of horsemanship, including reshoeing the horses and
grooming them. Most present-day practitioners come from these families.
Still, fishermen and local residents alike hope that safeguarding the
craft and ensuring its financial stability may draw in new and
enthusiastic young practitioners with a background in keeping horses.
But it’s methodical, unglamorous work, D’Hulster says, and unsuited to
those doing it simply for the attention of tourists and the media.
Successful fishermen must have discipline and a deep love for the sea,
their horse, and their heritage. “The horses require your passion all
year long,” he says. “All year long.”