The Red Pony was well received by John Steinbeck's contemporary critics and seen as an important advancement in his artistic techniques. Commenting on the original limited-edition collection of the first three stories, Randolph Bartlett of the New York Sun wrote in 1937 that Steinbeck's art in The Red Pony is marked by great "finesse" and that the book's success emanates from Steinbeck's personal knowledge of the California landscape and his subject matter:
The effectiveness of his work is due in a very large measure to the fact that he obviously knows intimately the region of which he writes. [. . .] Horses too he knows, inside and out, and what is going on in their minds, and boys he must know and love, or he could not have written of Jody as he did. (McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 98)
Though Eda Lou Walton of the Nation criticized the text for heavy-handed symbolism in 1937, she points out that The Red Pony, like Steinbeck's earlier fiction, highlights his important philosophy "that man and his natural environment should not be separated" (McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 99). Furthermore, she argues the text demonstrates Steinbeck has evolved into "a more competent writer relying on a realistic technique and dramatic shock to make his points" (99).
Other critics observed how The Red Pony exemplifies Steinbeck's ability to create subtle meanings through very ordinary experiences and characters with great beauty and preciseness. Edith H. Walton of the New York Times Book Review commented in 1937, "In other hands, these slight, delicate stories, quite unremarkable in theme, might have struck one as somewhat jejune and certainly not exciting" (McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 101). But in Steinbeck's hands, she writes, they are "pure gold" (101). Walton conveys how Steinbeck uses the ordinary occurrences of life and the mundane passing of time out west to create seemingly simple messages that ultimately explode with meaning: "Slight as they seem, tenuous as are their plots, all three of these stories have more depth, intensity and variety than one could possibly anticipate" (102). Joseph Henry Jackson of the San Francisco Chronicle, defending the high price of the original collection of the first three stories, wrote in 1937: "The delicacy is in the precise, beautiful handling of words, in the equally precise and exact placing of scenes, in the even more exact and lovely balance of the whole" (103-104).
Today, The Red Pony is one of the most well-known and beloved works of Steinbeck's career. Steinbeck's biographer, Jackson Benson argues, "The Red Pony is a very early and a completely successful instance of the organic relationship between structure and materials which distinguishes Steinbeck's most important fiction" (Benson 84-85). Many critical theorists have discussed the motif of the rite of passage or initiation within the collection and correlate Jody's maturation with that of a young page ultimately acquiring his knighthood. Warren French argues that the progression of the stories "[. . .] depicts the way in which this boy has learned compassion in the course of undergoing four crucial tests very much like those imposed upon appellants for knighthood in the Middle Ages, a subject that fascinated Steinbeck" (qtd. in Benson 74). Each of the four stories present Jody with a challenge and Jody must choose the right path in order to advance to his manhood. French asserts Steinbeck "recapitulates a basic pattern in human experience," the journey from juvenile to adult, in a moving and realistic manner (qtd. in Benson 76). Critic Arnold Goldsmith concurs, writing, "The adventures of [Jody] are intended to teach [him] the need for stoic endurance in order to survive in an imperfect and cruel world (391). By the end of "The Leader of the People," readers have witnessed significant change in Jody, from immature boy who kills birds and hurts his dogs for fun, to young, empathetic male, who selflessly attempts to cheer his dejected grandfather. R. Baird Shuman points out that the end of The Red Pony "[. . .] shows Jody's change from a self-centered boy into a feeling young man who has finally attained the status of a human being" (1255).
Besides the quest motif, other critics have observed Steinbeck's depiction of the rhythmic patterns of life and death in the four stories. Goldsmith argues "[u]nderlying Steinbeck's four short stories which make up The Red Pony are thematic rhythms, structural balance, and a seasonal symbolism which skillfully integrate the whole work" (391). Readers are reminded just as winter's death is always cyclically followed by the hope and new life of spring, so too Jody's experiences reflect the counterbalance of birth and death in human life. Goldsmith argues this dichotomy is best represented by "the sharp contrast [Steinbeck] develops in "The Promise" between the black cypress tree by the bunkhouse and the water tub. Where the cypress is associated with death, the never-ending spring water piped into the old green tub is the symbol of the continuity of life" (393). This continuity is ever-tainted however, unlike the perfect and eternal water place, by the inevitable realities of life, specifically aging and death.
Other writers have focused on how, stylistically, telling the tales from Jody's perspective invites participation and empathy from readers in a way that some of Steinbeck's other, more objective prose does not. Howard Levant discusses how "[b]ecause Jody's is the point of view, we tend to accept his innocence as our own" (qtd. in Benson 85). Thus, readers are invited to experience and grow with Jody as he is the vehicle through which readers connect to life on the ranch and to each of the characters. The ease with which readers of all ages can identify with Jody and the loss of childhood innocence surely contributes to the book's enduring popularity.