While some dressage horses are unforgettable simply because they are highly decorated medal winners, others master the discipline in a way that no one expects—showing an eagerness and joy in their work that transcends competition. Such a horse is Balagur. The comparatively small stallion transitioned from a working-horse background to become a success in a world of meticulously bred warmbloods. Not only was he a contender at the world-class level, including a fifth-place finish at the 2008 Olympic Games with Russia’s Alexandra Korelova, but he is now a schoolmaster for the next generation of students. He is ridden daily by Theodorescu’s students and patiently shows the young girls where the right buttons are, never failing to make them beam when he executes a piaffe.
As a young horse in Russia, Balagur had been too slow when pulling a sulky on the racetrack—the discipline for which he was bred. So he was sent to the police department in the Russian town of Nizhny Novgorod (formerly known as Gorky) and for a few years he served as a police horse in the streets of this big town. In the winter, when the weather was too bad for horses to work outdoors, Balagur was exercised in the police stables, where a young Russian dressage rider, Korelova, had her horses.
While nobody imagined Balagur had dressage talent, his extraordinary movement and eagerness to work at a police competition had drawn the attention of former Olympic and World Dressage Champion Dr. Elena Petushkova. She loved his way of showing off and his ability to collect.
Korelova remembers, “When my former Grand Prix horse went lame, his owner, Anatoly Balykin, remembered how much talent for piaffe and passage Dr. Petushkova had recognized in Balagur, and so he bought him for me.”
Korelova embarked on an international dressage career with Balagur. “I felt a little embarrassed because nobody competed in dressage on an Orlov Trotter,” she admits.
To the old saying that “a good horse has no color” can be added “a good dressage horse does not necessarily belong to a certain breed.” Someone who lived by this credo throughout his life was Theodorescu’s father, the world-renowned dressage trainer George Theodorescu, who trained countless internationally successful dressage horses and riders from all over the world until his death in 2007. The native Romanian was descended from generations of dressage trainers. Like them, George Theodorescu did not pay attention to breed or height. So Balagur’s new owner sent Theodorescu a video of his acquisition, asking if this small 11-year-old horse was worth working with. Monica remembers that her father liked the very special, positive expression Balagur showed on the video.
“His eagerness to work could not be missed, and my father wanted to try it with him, even though Balagur showed no walk, almost no trot and with his short forelegs and high croup did not seem suitable.” She says that was the day that Balagur’s career was decided.
Training with the Master
Balagur was immediately transported from Russia to Theodorescu’s home in Germany so he could start working with this equine jewel. At the beginning of 2002, the self-confident Orlov Trotter and his young rider found themselves in Germany.
It is said that Theodorescu had a special gift for winning horses over and making them work for him. He always said that his success as a rider and trainer was based on making horses his friends by securing their trust. He had a famous quote: “Dominance is silly stuff. One has to win the trust of the horses and talk with them.”
Theodorescu was already over 70 years old when he met Balagur, and they soon developed a relationship that went beyond the norm.
“Whatever Balagur did, he did it mostly for George,” remembers Korelova. “They took a mutual liking to each other from the first moment they met. Balagur would have done anything for praise from George, and it made him incredibly proud when, after an effort or a well-done movement, Balagur got it.”
Despite his virtues, Balagur’s basic rideability left a lot to be desired. Also, his walk could not be described as regular and his trot lacked the necessary impulsion. Despite this, only a few months after the move to Germany, Balagur and Korelova rode in their first Grand Prix class.
They did not place at the top in the beginning. They had to gain experience and the judges had to become used to seeing a completely different type of horse than they were used to. The pair continued to progress and, only seven months after starting with Theodorescu, joined the Russian team for the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. There, Balagur and Korelova placed 27th out of 65 and, as the second-best pair on their team, narrowly missed making the Grand Prix Special.
“Balagur had not been as easy as he looked,” says Korelova. “Orlov Trotters in general are very motivated horses that learn quickly. But they are also horses, and Balagur was no exception. He first needed to trust you to be able to work with you.”
Very soon, a kind of symbiosis evolved among the little gray, his trainer and his rider that went far beyond the usual trainer−rider−horse relationship. The focus of this triangle was Balagur, whom all considered to be absolutely unique.
The most difficult Grand Prix movements, such as piaffe, passage and pirouettes were child’s play for Balagur, but it was his qualities as a showman that made him, from 2002 onward, increasingly the undoubted and celebrated favorite in the dressage arenas where he appeared. The impression was of a small stallion (rumored to have earned his oats as a circus horse in Russia) who enjoyed the attention and was at his best in a huge stadium full of admiring spectators.
An example of Balagur’s great intelligence came during the preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens: Trainers were not allowed to use whips, so Theodorescu took out his handkerchief and waved it in the tempo he wanted and Balagur promptly responded by keeping the same time.
Balagur’s great passion is sugar. Every morning, as soon as he had entered Theodorescu’s indoor arena, Balagur went straightaway into the left corner where, with his long topline stretched, ears pricked and expression expectant, he picked up a welcoming lump from Theodorescu. The attentive observer would see Balagur after every class walk purposefully to the exit, where Theodorescu waited with his lump of sugar. No matter if it was at the World Equestrian Games, Aachen, the European Championships or the Olympic Games, at the end of each class, he presented himself always in the same way for his treat.
But on the morning of August 22, 2007, Balagur entered the indoor arena without even glancing into the corner where his friend had always welcomed him with a lump of sugar. He seemed to know that Theodorescu would never be there again. Monica is convinced Balagur realized that her father had died the day before. “He knew,” she says. “My father and Balagur had been intellectual allies.”
After Theodorescu’s passing, Balagur placed third and fifth respectively at the 2008 Aachen Grand Prix and the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. Now, with a young student on his back and an incredible resume in his pocket, Balagur has certainly thanked his friend and master posthumously. He has also demonstrated to the world the fruits of his friendship with the trainer who had recognized the potential in this “unsuitable” little horse.