Shrimp fishing on horseback in the sea; unique in the world!

Fish are caught by modern fishing cutters. Yet there is also a traditional form of fishing that is practiced differently than by ship: horse fishing. This method of fishing takes place along the Belgian coast, roughly between Nieuwpoort and De Panne on the French-Belgian border. Fishing in this form is almost only practiced by a few true enthusiasts. Horse fishing is fun for tourists and, unlike mechanical fishing far out at sea, you can follow it with your own eyes. The fishermen are passionate people, with a love for the sea as well as for horses.

Horse fishermen center Oostduinkerke

Oostduinkerke on the Flemish coast is the place to see horse fishermen at work. This way of fishing has been practiced here since the 16th century. The horse fishermen travel with large draft horses into the seawater of the North Sea to catch shrimps. A condition for horse fishing is that there is a flat beach. This stretch of beach may only slope slowly into the sea. This is the case at Oostduinkerke. There are also no breakwaters here and there are no piers that extend into the sea.

Fishing with a draft horse in the sea: unique in the world!

It is of course much easier and less labor intensive to earn money in tourism, for example. But it is precisely that same tourism that ensures that a small group of enthusiasts continues to practice this form of fishing. The tourist wants an experience, and that is particularly the case in the case of horse fishing. Moreover, buy shrimp that have just been cooked afterwards: it doesn’t get any fresher!

Donkeys and horses

Horses are used all over the world to facilitate various activities for humans. This is also done in this form of fishing. It can be done without a horse, but dragging a net over the bottom for a long time is difficult. Donkeys were also used in the period between the two World Wars. These animals are tough and calm in character. The latter is not always the case with a horse, because this animal regularly shows fright reactions and can flee. Because a certain type of net is used, the donkey has become unsuitable for this form of fishing. The animal is not suitable for this and the Brabant draft horse is used.

The horse fishing season on the Belgian coast

The actual season is spring and autumn. In winter the water of the North Sea is too cold and there are (too) few shrimps to catch. The opposite is the case in summer. The sea water is often too warm, which causes the shrimp to stay away from the coast and seek out deeper and colder water. In spring and autumn you can see the fishermen at work. There are regular demonstrations especially for tourists.
Source: David Edgar, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

The fishing method

The fishing takes place in a short period of time. Around the hours of low tide. The fishermen go from the stables to the sea with their horse and cart. The cart is needed to carry fishing supplies. Characteristic of the fishermen is the yellow oilskin (rain gear) that they always wear. When they arrive at the sea, the horses are prepared for fishing. A net is used, with a board on both sides of the opening. When the horse starts walking through the sea, the pulling force of the horse causes the net to open. The fisherman sits on the horse and ensures that the horse does not go into the water beyond its torso. A round takes about half an hour.

Sorting the catch

Sorting the catch takes place on the beach. After the horse and fisherman emerge from the water, the net is emptied onto the beach. Besides shrimps, something else is also caught. This bycatch is sorted and then released back into the sea. After all, the horse fisherman only cares about the shrimps. The fisherman then goes back into the sea to do another round.

Fresh shrimps

It is a tradition for horse fishermen to cook their freshly caught shrimp immediately after catch. This is done at home in boilers. The shrimps caught at sea on a fishing vessel are also cooked after catch. This is done at sea in kettles with seawater. The horse fishermen boil their caught shrimps in water to which some salt is added. Every fisherman has his own recipe. This recipe is used as a marketing tool to promote the product as the best. It is therefore possible to taste and buy the shrimp, barely cooled and fresh, at the fishermen’s home. The leftovers are often used to make fish soup.

Peel shrimp

Once the shrimp are cooked, they still need to be peeled. You can do this yourself at home or buy peeled shrimp. Peeling shrimp is not for everyone. It is a labor-intensive trick that takes many hours to master. Fun to do, but most people still choose the option to take peeled shrimp home.

Additional income

You can’t make a living from shrimp fishing on horseback. Therefore, the fishermen have another form of income. It is purely the real enthusiasts who do this. In addition to this hobby, they all have another job that provides their main income. The condition is that one can easily leave when the time is right. The fishermen therefore have a job where they can organize their time themselves and can go away to catch shrimp when necessary.

Horse lovers

You are a fisherman through and through. A horse lover too. If both are in your genes, you are a born horse fisherman. The craft is often passed from father to son. You can either master fishing or not, and feeling the power of a horse is not for everyone. It is therefore very important that the fisherman has a bond of trust with his horse. The sea is and remains unpredictable and a horse is quickly frightened by unexpected events. They both need to be able to trust each other blindly.

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