8 March 2019 | Translation for the Royal Belgian Draf Horse Studbook
Original text (Dutch): Ann Muys
This February and March, I spent a couple of Saturdays in Zeeland, a beautiful coastal region in the South of The Netherlands, to get acquainted with "Straô riding”. When it comes to experiencing draft horse culture, Zeeland - hosting several strength competitions, tilting at the ring events, and driving contests like ‘sjeesrijden’ - is definitely the place to be. Nowadays, quite a few draft horse traditions, are only kept alive in Zeeland. ‘Straô-rieen’ is one of them, and this winter, I got to witness it for the very first time.
Straô-rieen, or beach riding, is an annual village festival that only takes place on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland. It is recognized as an official Dutch heritage event. The party starts eight weeks before Easter and has become increasingly popular these last few years. In Straô riding, horsemen and women ride their beautifully decorated draft horses into the sea to get rid of evil winter ghosts. These spirits are said to hide themselves in the horses’ legs during wintertime, when the animals mostly stay in their stables. Some families have been participating for centuries. Anyone who wants to, whether living in Zeeland or not, can sign up and compete for the prize that is awarded to the most impressively decorated horse.
Six villages organize their own Straô riding events: Renesse, Noordwelle, Burgh-Haamstede, Ellemeet, Scharendijke and Serooskerke.
Straô riding was first mentioned in 1643, but presumably the ritual has been around for much longer. Originally the event was held on the first Monday before Lent. After 1955 it was moved to Saturday. Sunday was not an option, as a small part of the population in Zeeland would not be able to participate on that day of the week because of religious beliefs.
In the past, farmers and servants rode their horses into the sea to wash and disinfect feet and legs after a winter in the barn. Following months of stable rest, many horses suffered from mud fever or skin inflammation. Some of them were stiff and achy from lack of exercise. According to popular belief in Zeeland the salty seawater had cleansing and healing powers, moreover, it would chase away evil spirits and circumvent nightmares.
Before the start of the beach ride, all participants present themselves to a jury. Whoever decorated his or her horse in the most beautiful way, will be announced the winner at the end of the event. Then, all contenders make their way to the sea together, preceded by a number of experienced straô riders directing the group using brass horns. Once the horses’ feet have been cleansed, the riders go off for a nice coastal walk before returning to the village. There, they are joined by the local children and a festive brass band. The procession ends at the center of the village where the entire group walks a couple of laps around the church. After the award ceremony for the best decorated horse, the event is concluded with a tilting at the ring contest.
It is very special to witness how the entire event revolves around the draft horse, how so many participants decorate their horses with the greatest of care and how intensely they enjoy the beach ride with their favorite companion. A prime example of healthy relaxation!