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These Belgian horses are part of a unique – and surprising – tradition

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ONLY ONE PLACE in the world still holds this 500-year-old tradition of fishermen and horses working together to find the sea’s true delicacy – shrimp. In the little town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium, this tradition lives on. Fisherman still ready their horses and carry their nets towards the sea, and today, their work is registered as UNESCO world heritage. This is their story. 

In the early ages, fishing for shrimp was carried out along the entire coastline of the North Sea. The soft sand was ideal for horses to trot to the water where they would spend about three hours splashing around with two nets attached to their backs.

Horses dragging the nets through the sea.
Horses dragging the nets through the sea.

 

The first documents from the archives that write about this tradition date back to 1510, with men carrying baskets and horses carrying nets. Charles the fifth, Holy Roman Emperor around the time of 1535, forbid the fishing of shrimp, and in the 18th century there was even a penalty for the men who disobeyed this law.

A fisherman carrying his baskets to shore with his equipment
A fisherman carrying his baskets to shore with his equipment.

A few years later, fishing was allowed again, but high taxes had to be paid on the amount of shrimp each fishermen brought home. Every year, these events are still acted out in the form of a play, called ‘The Stormfests’.

Because the sea houses lots of different animals, the fishermen have to separate the fish and crabs from the shrimp. The wooden boxes are a welcome tool at this stage.
Because the sea houses lots of different animals, the fishermen have to separate the fish and crabs from the shrimp. The wooden boxes are a welcome tool at this stage.

 

The nets are shaken so no shrimp or other animal stays caught.
The nets are shaken so no shrimp or other animal stays caught.

The number of fishermen has fluctuated strongly over the last two centuries. While in the 18th century around 27 men faced the cold sea, in 1968 there were only three registered.

A female volunteer carries a basket and a net to catch the shrimp. The volunteers splash through the water on foot.
A female volunteer carries a basket and a net to catch the shrimp. The volunteers splash through the water on foot.

 

A volunteer resting back at shore after spending over 3 hours in the water.
A volunteer resting back at shore after spending over 3 hours in the water.

Today, 12 men ride their horses while they are accompanied by volunteers on foot.

! The group of volunteers head back to the small town, satisfied of their work. Today, there were only women.
The group of volunteers head back to the small town, satisfied of their work. Today, there were only women.

 

One of the fishermen attached his cart back to his horse and rides back to town where he will sell the shrimp to an amused audience.
One of the fishermen attached his cart back to his horse and rides back to town where he will sell the shrimp to an amused audience.

 

The horse rests, while the fisherman cleans his nets.
The horse rests, while the fisherman cleans his nets.

An old saying goes: “Shrimp fishing is as the tide:  as long as the tide’s there, the fishing will be too.”

After a couple of hours of hard labour, the men take off their signature yellow ‘wet suits’, consisting of a vest and trousers paired with long rubber boots, and let them dry in the sun.
After a couple of hours of hard labour, the men take off their signature yellow ‘wet suits’, consisting of a vest and trousers paired with long rubber boots, and let them dry in the sun.
Every horse has its specific blanket, so it protects the horse’s back while carrying around all the heavy equipment. Each and every one of these blankets is unique and have beautiful colors
Every horse has its specific blanket, so it protects the horse’s back while carrying around all the
heavy equipment. Each and every one of these blankets is unique and have beautiful colors.

 

Photography and story by Christine Smeyers, winner of Pandeia’s first Photography Competition. 

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