"My horse comes first, then the ocean, then my wife. And she's going to have to accept that," shouts Marius Dujardin to me as he cheers on his horse with an occasional "ju." On his cap there's an illustration of a large shrimp and his face is characterized by the sea and sun. His nose is red because of the wind, and his dialect is so thick that no Dutch native would be able to understand him.
The only thing missing here is a mermaid tattoo.
The Belgium beach town Oostduinkerke is the only place in the world where fishermen still step into the sea with horses and woven baskets to catch shrimp. Approximately six centuries ago, this was the norm across the entire North Sea coast, but nowadays, there are only sixteen horse-fishermen left in the world. Horse fishing is so rare that these sea fighters were added to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list. They're macho, strong, and can charm more girls than a sweaty Kay Nambiar taking his shirt off in the finale of Expedition Robinson.
When I arrive, it's low-tide, the sun is coming up, and the beach is desolate. The only sounds I hear are waves, hooves, and snorting horses. Nine gigantic Belgian Heavy Horses walk my way. Each of them is pulling a carriage and a fisherman clad in bright yellow rain slickers and high boots. On the beach, the fishermen tie the baskets onto their steeds, connect a net to each and walk into the water. During high season, they do this several times a week—from late September to mid-July—and spend about three hours in the water. They walk parallel to the beach and up and down the sand banks, busy feeling oneness with nature.
"Practically every day I'm in the ocean. When there's a storm, fishing boats can't set sail, but we can work in these conditions. Intense waves, strong currents, thick fog, gusts of wind, and five Beaufort strong: my horse and I can easily manage that," says Marius Dujardin, the oldest of the gang. After fishing, he sifts through his treasures on the beach. "My passion for the ocean has been taught to me from a young age. What I love most is fishing in the middle of the night or really early in the morning when nobody is around. To me it's like meditation, ultimate peace where everything is lackadaisical: me, my horse, and all-powerful nature. Worries disappear like water off a duck's back."
The connection to the horse is important. If you're not relating to your steed, it's impossible to have a fruitful day of catching shrimp. For 17-year-old Thomas Vanmassenhove, the youngest horse-fisherman in the world, his horse is his best friend. They understand one another without saying a word. Yoshi Delancker has spent more nights sleeping next to his horse than sleeping next to his wife. "When I come home after going out, I sleep in the hay until my dad wakes me to go fishing. This animal is more important to me than women," he hollers with a cigarette between his lips, and follows this up with an important life lesson. "You know what they say. There are two dangerous things in the world: the backside of a horse and the front of a woman."
Horse-fishing is often perceived as a dying profession, but Marius disagrees. "It's not a profession but a hobby. We catch eight kilo on average, but sometimes even twenty or only one. We sell a kilo for about eight euros so we clearly don't do this for the money. The city donates money to us when we have demonstrations for tourists, and we also sell shrimp croquettes or soup, but all the money we earn goes back into our horses and necessary materials."
Centuries ago, horse-fishing was a full-time job—but now it's just an expensive hobby. Therefore, the horse-fishermen all have non-UNESCO-certified occupations like farming, being students, or working as construction workers.
Horse-fishing only exists in Oostduinkerke, mainly due to the broad beach without breakwater, which is perfect for catching shrimp. Another explanation is the fact that the profession traditionally is passed on from father to son. A son that has no interest in the world of shrimping metaphorically stabs the heart of his seafaring father, but also misses the opportunity to become a hero in his own town. The men of the sea are also the ambassadors of the city. They have their own coins, their own stamps (with Marius on it), and their own holiday, which includes a shrimp procession.
Children want to shake their hands, men want to take pictures with them, and women stand in line to fondle more than their horses. The rising popularity and media attention since the recognition is, according to Marius, dangerous: "The fishermen should keep their feet on the ground or start looking down on people that don't fish … We call the wooden chair we sit on a pulpit, because fishermen lie as much about their catch as priests lie about, well, everything.
Everyone who has money, lots of time, and a strong character can become a horse-fisherman, but the schooling is mentally and physically intense and the hierarchy within the group has to be maintained. Candidates have to bring their own horse and equipment and report themselves to the municipality. They study with experienced horse-fishermen that show them how to read the sea, how to treat their horse, and how to conquer frequent endangerment. Then, they take their practical exams. "We must respect our elders and listen to them," shares youngster Thomas.
This year, three new horse-fishermen joined the team and one of them is female, one of the most revolutionary things to happen to horse-fishing since it's inception; it has long since been a platform for crude male culture for centuries. The newer generation of shrimp fishermen is fine with this. "I have no problem with women that are horse-fishing as long as they respect the same laws as us," shares Thomas. The eldest has a slightly different opinion. "Who am I to refuse a woman? I don't want to take anybody's hobby but the ocean is and always will be a man's terrain. Many people only perceive the beautiful side but the North Sea is dangerous. You can end up in a storm, fall off your horse, and get caught in your net while your horse keeps walking. If you don't manage to get off your horse in this scenario you're toast. The female form is not built for this," clarifies Marius.
To recognize these female shrimp porters, Dorine Geersens initiated the Stienestekers, a group of 40 women who dive into the sea once a week to catch shrimp. Nowadays they're better equipped than their predecessors, with waders and slickers, and totenmepper, a small wooden plank with a space for a stick that's now used as a coaster for their shot of booze to toast women who celebrate women.
The shrimp fisher folk—both men on their horses and women on foot—lure swarms of tourists to the Belgium coastline. "During the summer months we know we have to adjust. Catching shrimp during this time is bad because of the warm water temperatures, but we still go fishing for demonstrations. I know that tourism is good for the city, but I prefer to just fish accompanied by my two companions, the ocean and my horse," say Marius when we return to the main land.
He signals his horse to leave when the traffic light turns green and I jump off the carriage. In the distance I can still hear him protest "Scoundrel!" to a car that neglects to give him the right-of-way. Prick, I think when I look at the driver. Don't you know that shrimp heroes always have the right-of-way?