Each of the four stories in "The Red Pony" portray trials that the "little boy" Jody must undergo on his journey to adulthood (145). Similarly to Medieval "rites of passage," where a page must pass certain tests in order to finally achieve knighthood, the reader follows Jody as he undertakes his own quests on the road to maturation. In "The Promise," Steinbeck describes Jody as a member of "a phantom army with great flags and swords" (190). Jody marches into battle several times in the text in order to prove himself against his overbearing father, the forces of sexuality and reproduction, aging and death, and the initial loss of innocence that is a critical step on the journey to adulthood.
"The Gift" challenges Jody with the upbringing of the wild red pony, Gabilan. Ten-year-old Jody is expected to care for his colt with the greatest attention under the threat of his stern father, Carl Tiflin, to "sell him off in a minute" (151). Under the tutelage of his elder, the ranch hand and horse expert Billy Buck, Jody, like a young page, learns how to take exceptional care of his pony. Jody also learns very important lessons about the "fallibility of man" through his training with Billy Buck. Not only does he learn about his own limitations as he falls asleep twice on his night watch with Gabilan, allowing the sick pony to wander from the barn, but he also learns Billy Buck is only human as well. Though Jody trusted in Billy Buck's "assurance that rain couldn't hurt a horse," his pony nonetheless ends up dead (162). The awareness of adult fallibility comes shockingly to Jody and humbly to Billy Buck who remembers Gabilan's death later in "The Promise": "Billy knew he had been infallible before that, and now he was capable of failure. This knowledge made Billy much less sure of himself than he had been" (199). This knowledge also irreversibly changes Jody's view of adults. Later, in "The Leader of the People," Jody sees even his father is capable of mistakes as he painfully witnesses his father "retract a word in shame" after insulting Grandfather (223). The loss of Gabilan is Jody's first brush with the fallibility of man and the death of a loved one. He reacts with anger and rage, beating the buzzard he finds perched on his dead pony to a "pulp" (174).
Jody is confronted with the cyclical processes of birth, aging, and death as harsh and inevitable biological realities as he ventures down his path towards maturity. Jody's first confrontation with the inescapable nature of death occurs in "The Gift" with the loss of Gabilan and his attack on the buzzards at the end of the story. Though Jody witnesses death through the animals he killed and the slaughtering of animals on the ranch, the horrible, drawn out suffering of Gabilan's sickness and eventual death is new to Jody, who ultimately stands bravely in the face of this death and even helps Billy Buck hold up Gabilan's head when he cuts a hole in his windpipe. Jody reacts to his ultimate helplessness and inability to save his pony with anger and rage. He violently attacks a buzzard that was plucking the eye out of Gabilan's dead carcass. Not knowing what to do, he runs over and beats the bird until Billy Buck pulls him away. Bewilderedly, his father explains to Jody, "the buzzard didn't kill the pony. Don't you know that?" (174). "'Course he knows it," as Billy explains, but as a young boy, Jody knows of no other way of dealing with the frustration of losing something you love and not being able to do anything about it (174).
Jody is introduced to the violent nature of reproduction, birth, and death in "The Promise." Jody's father offers him a second chance to raise a colt and charges him with the task of escorting the mare Nellie to be inseminated by the neighbor's stallion, Sundog. Jody witnesses the mating in fear, not understanding that the violent clashing between the two animals is part of a natural process. He shouts at Sundog's owner, Jess Taylor: "He'll hurt her, he'll kill her. Get him away!" (195). He then endures Nellie's long pregnancy with great anticipation and impatience. He learns of the dangers of birth from Billy Buck who forebodingly tells him that "[…] sometimes if it's wrong, you have to tear the colt to pieces to get it out, or the mare'll die" (198). Later he witnesses the violent death of Nellie when Billy Buck kills her in order to deliver Jody's colt alive. Jody comes to associate the close relationship between birth and death at the end of "The Promise." Steinbeck writes, "He tried to be glad because of the colt, but the bloody face, and the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him," reminding Jody and readers that death is never far behind birth and new life (208). This is contrasted in two important symbolic places in the story: the dark and foreboding black cypress tree under which the farm animals are slaughtered and the green and refreshing "water place" to which Jody retreats that "eliminated time and distance" and offers Jody a wonder world of hope and eternity (201).
Jody encounters the prospect of his own death in "The Great Mountains." Though he has already experienced the death of his beloved pony, he does not sense the larger significance of death until the old paisano, Gitano, returns to the ranch to die in "The Great Mountains." Much like the unknown mountains to the west, Gitano's history is mystified in the story and symbolized by the beautiful rapier Jody catches him polishing. As a demonstration of his growing maturity, Jody chooses to keep his observation of the rapier to himself. Steinbeck writes, "[…] Jody new one thing more sharply than he had ever known anything. He must never tell anyone about the rapier. It would be a dreadful thing to tell anyone about it, for it would destroy some fragile structure of truth" (187). The morning after Gitano's arrival, when the ranch awakens to find him gone, Jody has a revelation of Gitano's and the possibility of his own eventual death and is possessed by a "nameless sorrow" (189).
"The Great Mountains," along with "The Leader of the People," also teaches Jody important lessons about how society views and treats the aging. His father is visibly annoyed by old Gitano's presence at the ranch and tells him, "Old things ought to be put out of their misery" (183). He insensitively jokes about putting Gitano out to pasture like his old horse, Easter. Carl Tiflin is also extremely rude to Grandfather in "The Leader of the People." He devalues Grandfather's experiences with "westering," saying "[t]hat time's done" and that he should "forget it" even though that was the one important experience in his life that gave it meaning (222). Jody not only observes how one is considered worthless in old age, but he also witnesses blatant disregard for each man's personal history. In the end, Jody tries to comfort Grandfather the only way he knows how after Carl Tiflin humiliates him, by making Grandfather lemonade, a special treat. Grandfather's initial reaction is to reject the offer, but he accepts it after he "saw Jody's face" (225). Grandfather chooses not to destroy Jody's youthful hope and enthusiasm at this juncture, though it is clear at the end of the text that life certainly has that in store for Jody.
Steinbeck contrasts his father, the stern Carl Tiflin, with the empathetic Billy Buck as two very different role models for Jody. Steinbeck shows Jody respects his father, the "disciplinarian" out of fear and "obey[s] him in everything without question" (146). More than once in the text, his father's presence brings a sense of "doom" to Jody (151). On the other hand, Jody genuinely looks up to Billy Buck and respects his knowledge of horses. He unequivocally trusts Billy until the death of Gabilan. And while Carl Tiflin is never moved by his son's emotions, Billy is affected by Jody's fear, sorrow, and rage on two important occasions in the text. The first occasion occurs in "The Gift" when he comes upon Jody beating the buzzard that had plucked the eye out of Gabilan's carcass. While Carl Tiflin is dumfounded and questions Jody, "[…] the buzzard didn't kill the pony. Don't you know that?" (174), Billy vehemently defends and protects Jody. He carries Jody home after admonishing Carl Tiflin for his ignorance: "''Course he knows it," Billy said furiously, "'Jesus Christ! man, can't you see how he'd feel about it?'" (174). The second incident occurs in "The Promise" when Billy kills Nellie in order to save her colt during birth and make good on his promise to Jody: "There's your colt. I promised. And there it is. I had to do it—had to" (208).
Besides not being able to connect with his son, Steinbeck shows Carl Tiflin to be insensitive to everyone else around him. In "The Great Mountains," Carl Tiflin insults the aging Gitano while Billy Buck defends the old Paisano by saying, "They're damn good men," They can work older than white men" (186). Billy is also respectful of Grandfather in "The Leader of the People," staying to listen to a story he has already heard even though he announced his plans to retire for the evening, whereas Carl Tiflin is downright mean and rude to Grandfather. Grandfather also respects Billy calling him a "good boy" (217). In comparison to Billy Buck, Carl Tiflin is brash and unsympathetic. Steinbeck shows Jody is lucky to have the wise and empathetic Billy Buck as a role model.
The concept of "Westering" is introduced in "The Leader of the People." Though Carl Tiflin is infinitely annoyed by Grandfather's repetitious tales of his experiences leading a wagon train across the west, Steinbeck shows how integral the concept is to Grandfather's and the preceding generation's mindset. For the unappreciative Carl Tiflin, "westering" is simply something "done" and over with that should be "forgotten" (222). For Grandfather, and others like him of his generation, however, "westering" was the defining motivation of their entire lives. Grandfather tries to explain to Jody how "westering" was a spirit and an ambition that "was as big as God." Carl Tiflin's disregard and ingratitude, however, makes Grandfather "feel as though the crossing wasn't worth doing" (224) and he tells Jody that the spirit "has died out of the people" (225). The exuberant and adventuresome Jody tells Grandfather that he too "[…] could lead the people some day," but Grandfather insists there is "no place to go Every place is taken" and "the worst" is that people, like Carl Tiflin do not seem to care that the "westering" spirit is dead (225). Through Grandfather's experience, Steinbeck demonstrates Americans have lost something special by allowing that spirit to die out.
From his studies in biology, Steinbeck believed the tendency of the natural world was to combine individual, yet interdependent parts into unified wholes, called superorganisms, which take on larger and more complex significance than any individual component possesses in isolation. Since, like other organisms, humans exhibit characteristics as part of a group that they do not necessarily possess as individuals, Steinbeck found it useful to apply the concept of the superorganism to human behavior. He referred to this concept as the "phalanx," a term taken from an ancient Greek warfare maneuver in which soldiers grouped together in dense units to form a wall of protection. In much of his fiction, Steinbeck examines the ways in which humans either succeed or fail in their attempts at achieving the orderly cooperation necessary for ensuring the continued survival of the whole. He also strives to reconcile human individuality with people's intense drive to be part of the larger and often oppressive and dangerous wholes constructed by culture (also commonly known as mob mentality). "The Leader of the People" is one of Steinbeck's early explorations of group behavior and of how individuals seem to lose their identities and significance in groups. Grandfather tries to explain this concept to Jody:
It wasn't Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering. I was the leader, but if I hadn't been there, someone else would have been the head. The thing had to have a head. (225)
Thus, the "thing" became a force greater than the men and their own desires. Steinbeck dramatizes similar concepts of collective behavior in works such as "The Vigilante" in The Long Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Moon is Down, and examines the concept from a scientific perspective in The Log from the Sea of Cortez.