Donald Hall began writing "Names of Horses" in 1975, and it was first published in the New Yorker in 1977. In this poem, Hall revisits his past and pays tribute to the horses that worked his grandparents' farm in New Hampshire. While poets often change the facts of memories from real life to fit their creative purposes, Hall is faithful to his memories. With the exception of the last, the names of the horses in the poem refer to actual horses Hall knew of as a child at Eagle Pond Farm. Thus the poem has a highly autobiographical dimension.
The first half of the poem reads like a list, a summary of the life of a work horse. Day after day, season after season, the same set of chores needed to be performed if the farm was to thrive. Summer meant haying, Sundays meant driving the family to church, and the horses were always present to lend their power in the service of man. In its direct address, the poem narrates the life of these horses, indirectly giving voice to otherwise mute creatures. At the same time, it educates the reader as to the details and harsh realities of life on a New England farm.
But the poem offers much more than a cataloging of farm chores. When the horse's period of service is over, when its body can no longer bear the workload, it is taken to a field, shot, and buried. Farm work was often very hard, and trying to squeeze a living out of the rocky and sandy soil of Eagle Pond Farm left little room for sentimental attachments, little room to regard the older animals as pets. The unwritten law of the farm demanded that the horses no longer holding their own, those no longer contributing to the success of the farm, must be euthanized. Part story, part meditation on memory and time, in "Names of Horses" the life of a typical horse becomes Hall's means of expressing his complex vision of mortality and the inherent worth of these unsung creatures.