At almost 28 years of age, the Russian-bred Orlov Trotter, Balagur, is still going strong. After having been a trotter and then a police horse in Russia, he started a third career in the dressage arena at the advanced age of 11. Ridden by Russia’s Alexandra Korelova, he successfully represented the country no less than nine times at international championships between 2002 and 2009. Trained by the late German dressage trainer Georg Theodorescu, the small, fiery stallion improved steadily with age and peaked with an individual sixth place at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong at the age of 18.
Balagur officially retired from competition at the age of 19, but he has continued as a schoolmaster. So what has been the source of his fountain of youth that apparently keeps him forever young? Monica Theodorescu, Germany’s national dressage coach and daughter of Balagur’s trainer, has cared for the stallion ever since he retired from the sport eight years ago. When asked what the secret is behind Balagur’s ability to maintain his youthful nature, Monica says, “he simply loves what he does.”
In fact, Balagur has an extraordinary intrinsic motivation to work and show the dressage “tricks.” When he was younger and still competing, there was never a single day where he had to be asked to work. His unique relationship with Georg, “for whom he did most of what he did and whose praise made him proud” says Monica, enabled Balagur to go far beyond what seemed possible for this rather small representative of a breed not intended to excel in the dressage arena, but to race in front of a sulky. This breed was founded in the 18th century in Russia and is said to be intelligent, sturdy and blessed with good health.
While Balagur already enjoyed his daily training, he absolutely celebrated each time he went to a show. “He loved to show off in front of an audience,” Monica remarked. “The more people watched him, the better for Balagur.” His love for the sport did not cease in the course of almost a decade, in which the strong-willed stallion started under the Russian flag. On the contrary, Balagur actually achieved his best results in his 18th year, placing third at the holy show-grounds of Aachen and sixth at the Olympic Games in Hong Kong.
The apparently good genes and a late entry in the highest level of dressage sport contributed to his good health, which enables Balagur to remain fit and sound until this very day. However, there are other reasons that shouldn’t be overlooked. First and foremost, is the fact that Balagur’s very special equine personality had been hugely respected and considered in whatever he was asked to do.
Balagur never encountered any physical or mental overload, as he was trained after the classical principles, which have shown to improve horses and keep them healthy for centuries. This is also valid for the number of starts he did each year, even though he was more or less an “only-horse” for Alexandra at that time.
Respecting the individual character of a horse also means that not every athlete enjoys the same kind of retirement. Balagur was supposed to be kept in training a few more years after his retirement and then move on to a quiet life in the field, as was the routine for the rest of the horses of the Theodorescu family. But the opinionated grey had other ideas and has never been taken out of training to this very day.
“When, in about 2012, we wanted Balagur to make the transition from riding-horse life to a field-horse life, he showed us very clearly that he had a very low opinion of this,” Monica reported. While Balagur taught some of Monica’s students how a correct piaffe, passage or other high school movements feel, his training workload has gradually diminished during more recent years. But he still has a lot of fun showing the movements that made him world-famous and with which he earned the label of the “dancing horse.”
During my visit in late October 2017, Balagur immediately reacted to the noise of the shutter of my camera, pricked his ears and started to piaffe like in his best days. He did not show one stiff step of trot, either. The 27-year-old was still as sound as a bell.
In February 2017, Balagur had to move stables when Monica sold her facility, Lindenhof, and stabled her horses at the Olympic Center in Warendorf instead. Balagur didn’t mind the least and, ever since, enjoys the occasional hustle and bustle of this big yard. “During the Bundeschampionat in September, Balagur was very excited,” Monica laughed.
While Balagur’s legs still do not show much wear and are as clean as 15 years ago, his feeding regime had to be adjusted to his advanced age. “About two years ago, we started feeding soaked hay cubes and a special mash for senior horses several times a day,” Monica said. Balagur, like many other old horses, struggles to chew hay properly.
His health continues to be exceptional, and although he does have a few melanoma that are typical for older greys, they do not seem to bother him.
Balagur is exercised by Dania Mattaliano, who has intensively taken care of her famous charge for about three years now. He continues to have a rather low opinion about being turned out in one of the fields behind the stable where Monica’s horses enjoy some daily freedom. Instead, Balagur continues being hand-walked in the afternoon on the extensive grounds of the Olympic center at the edge of the woods.
This wise horse, whose 28th birthday is fast approaching, and who had a wild life like probably none other on the international scene, is the living example that the sport at the highest level does not necessarily end with horse full of health issues. In contrary, classical training and a reasonable number of starts over the years, given a certain positive genetic predisposition, keeps horses healthy and fit to play for a long time. Even more importantly, Balagur has maintained his same, impressive personality in the big dressage arenas all over the world because his people have always respected his unique character and individual needs.