The protagonist of The Red Pony, Jody, is a ten-year-old boy, son of Carl and Ruth Tiflin, whose head is adorned with "hair like dusty yellow grass" (145). His "shy, polite grey eyes" are inquisitive and, as is typical of childhood, Jody will speak freely about his thoughts and fears, which often raises the ire of his taciturn father, whom Jody seems to fear rather than respect (145). Like a typical child, Jody enjoys the outdoors, feels free to express his excitement and exuberance, and shirks his chores on the ranch whenever possible. Jody also possesses great respect for the ranch hand Billy Buck, who is far more approachable and empathetic than his father. Readers meet Jody in a state of childhood innocence, but witness his maturation process as he deals with death, procreation, tremendous disappointment, and rejection for the first time in his life.
Ranch owner, business man, westerner, and family man, Carl Tiflin is "Jody's tall stern father" (146). As the powerful and masculine head of the ranch, Carl Tiflin shows very few moments of compassion and is disconnected from his son's true feelings. Steinbeck describes him as a "disciplinarian" (146). Aside from the missed connections with his son, Carl is busy being the owner of a small farm and the head of the family, and is ultimately responsible for his family's survival and overall livelihood. This responsibility's desensitizing nature can be seen in Carl's lack of empathy for the death of Jody's beloved pony Gabilan and his lack of empathy for the experiences of both Gitano and Grandfather. While not portrayed as a mean or cruel man, Carl Tiflin's insensitivity and lack of compassion make him a much less appealing character than Billy Buck who possesses a more intimate and admirable relationship with Jody.
Mother to Jody and wife to Carl, Ruth is Steinbeck's balance for sensitivity and affection in Jody's life. In the beginning of the novel, Ruth is both understanding and comforting, sometimes protecting Jody from his father's insensitivity. Steinbeck describes her eyes as "brooding and kind" (164). She is aware of her son's emotional states, though Jody is unaware that "she could see his worry" about his pony (164). Ruth also blatantly defends her father against her husband's insensitivity and ignorance and also empathizes with old Gitano's experiences. Carl Tiflin, ordinarily the confident head of the household, even defers to her anger: "He could be stern with her most of the time, but when occasionally her temper arose, he could not combat it" (212). Ruth Tiflin serves as Carl Tiflin's opposite in the novel: unimposing, mostly quiet, compassionate, and empathetic.
Billy Buck is the first character introduced in The Red Pony. Steinbeck describes this middle-aged ranch hand as a "broad, bandy-legged little man with a walrus mustache, with square hands, puffed and muscled on the palms" (145). His eyes are "a contemplative, watery grey" (145). Billy Buck is most notably an expert on horses and when he offers his advice to young Jody, he "listened carefully, for he knew and the whole country knew that Billy Buck was a fine hand with horses" (156). Jody respects and admires Billy Buck much like a father figure. At the beginning of "The Gift," Jody sees Billy Buck as infallible, but after the death of his pony Gabilan, Jody realizes no one is perfect, not even Billy Buck. Billy Buck remembers the death of the pony with guilt and humility later in "The Promise:" "Billy knew he had been infallible before that, and now he was capable of failure" (199). His error teaches Jody an important lesson about loss, failure, and defeat and that, as Billy Buck puts is, "[n]o matter how good a man is, there's always some horse can pitch him" (160).
Gitano, an old paisano who returns to die on the Tiflin ranch, appears in "The Great Mountains." Upon his return to the ranch, he is greeted in a friendly manner by everyone except for Carl Tiflin, the ranch owner. Jody sees Gitano as a mysterious figure and associates him with the dark and secretive Santa Lucia Mountains. Steinbeck makes a connection between Gitano and Old Easter, the eldest horse on the ranch, to comment on society's view of the old and infirm. Jody tells Gitano about Easter's history on the ranch only for Gitano to respond, "No good any more. Too old to work, [j]ust eats and pretty soon dies" (183). Carl Tiflin later jokes about putting Gitano out to pasture like Easter, implying he too is old and useless. Later that night, Jody discovers Gitano possesses a mysterious and beautiful old rapier. He remembers the rapier sadly the next morning as he learns Gitano has stolen Old Easter and ridden off into the mountains.
Ruth Tiflin's father, Grandfather, is introduced in "The Leader of the People." Stereotypically, Grandfather tells the tales of his youth repeatedly to anyone willing to listen. Uniquely, Grandfather's tales are of "westering" and his experiences leading a wagon train across the Great Plains to California. While Jody is riveted by Grandfather's tales of Indians and gun fights, Carl Tiflin is infinitely annoyed by the repetitious stories and treats Grandfather rudely. At the end of the story, Grandfather tries to express to Jody the importance of "westering" to his generation and how he was privileged to lead the people. Grandfather's ideals represent Steinbeck's fascination with collective behavior. Grandfather tells Jody: "It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head" (225). Jody longs to lead the people some day too, but Grandfather tells him that, sadly, the collective spirit is now dead.
Jess Taylor, the owner of a nearby ranch, collects five dollars from Jody to mate his stallion, Sundog, with their mare, Nellie, in "The Promise."
Jody's first colt, in "The Gift," is muscled and red, with spirited, fiery eyes. This horse, purchased from a sheriff's auction in Salinas, would never grow to be old enough to ride. Though Jody cares for his pony as Billy Buck instructs him, Gabilan gets seriously ill and goes through an agonizingly long death brought on by the "strangles." Besides losing Gabilan, Jody loses his faith in the ranch hand Billy Buck who is unable to save the pony. Gabilan's is the first of the deaths and great losses that Jody experiences as readers follow him on his journey of maturation.
In "The Promise," Jody gets a second chance at having his own colt from the mare, Nellie. Nellie, in heat, is taken up the road to Jess Taylor's ranch to mate with the stallion, Sundog. The mating is successful and Jody suffers through the long pregnancy with impatience and anxiety. Eventually Nellie goes into labor and Billy Buck discovers her colt is breech. Remembering his inability to save Gabilan, Billy Buck kills Nellie with two hammer blows to the head and delivers her colt by Cesarean.
Jess Taylor's stallion is introduced in "The Promise" as he breaks free from his corral and violently mates with Nellie. Jody, a naïve ten year old, is afraid for Nellie's life and does not understand that this is just a natural process.
One of the Tiflins' ranch dogs, Doubletree Mutt has a big thick tail and yellow eyes, and is often on the receiving end of many of Jody's tricks and childhood cruelties.
The second of the two ranch dogs, Smasher the shepherd, lost his ear killing a coyote and protecting the ranch. Now, his one good ear stands up as high as it can, taking in the sounds of his surrounding environment.
Riley the boar is introduced in "The Leader of the People" as Jody tells Grandfather how Riley was so docile that he used to go for rides on his back.