Shrimp-Fishing By Horseback
Reader's Digest UK|May 2021
On the Flanders coast, a centuries-old tradition survives
Cyril Hofstein

GOOD, YOU ARE on time. If we miss the tide, we won’t bring back any shrimp.” Dominique Vanden-driessche, one of the last paardenvissers—Dutch for horse fishermen—in Oostduinkerke, Belgium, is in such a hurry to leave that he definitely would not have waited for us if we had arrived late. It’s still dark. The sandy landscape is pastoral, with pretty, low houses.

“Before the popularity of seaside tourism, people in the region were starving,” explains Dominique. “Nothing was growing properly. We were poor from one generation to the next, and the farmers had to fish for shrimp to make ends meet. Times were hard and so were the men. Sometimes, despite progress, and the madness of our times, I tell myself that nothing has really changed. You still have to fight to earn a living.”

With a steady hand, the young man—he’s 31—brings out Jako, an imposing Brabant, from his stall and prepares to harness him to his cart. In the pungent cold, the horse’s nostrils release two white plumes. At the age of six, this placid and powerful Belgian draft horse weighing almost a ton has been going to the sea only for a year, but he is already so used to the task that he could almost put himself in the shafts of his cart. With a kind, soft voice and in a sung language known only to the two of them, Dominique proceeds to guide Jako gently after harnessing him.

In a few minutes, everything is ready. It’s time for us to go. A walk of two miles awaits before we reach the seashore. Here in West Flanders, between De Panne and Nieuwpoort near the French border, the link that has for centuries united horses, men, and the North Sea has never been broken.

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