John Grady Cole The protagonist of the novel; the main character around whom most of the story revolves. He is a disenfranchised 16-year-old who cannot save his family ranch, which is his rightful legacy. In Mexico, when he finds another ranch and falls in love with the only child of that hacienda's owner, he works very hard to prove himself, in the hopes of perhaps making a future there, but his plan fails. John Grady is attractive (his friend calls him a "ladies man"), smart, and highly skilled with horses. He believes in right and wrong, and is passionate not only about horses and his beloved but also about his ideas.
Lacey Rawlins John Grady's best friend. He runs away from home with John Grady but worries about being followed and, eventually, wonders what his family and friends are doing back home (where he remains at the novel's end). More sentimental than John Grady, Rawlins is also more realistic. He believes that Blevins is trouble, and yet, when Blevins is tortured and shot, Rawlins is terribly affected; he is the one who can't believe places like the Saltillo prison exist. His friendship and affection for John Grady and for his horse last throughout the novel.
Blevins, the kid The 13-year-old (whose age is somewhat undetermined, because he lies so often) who sees John Grady and Rawlins in a town just north of the border and follows them. John Grady feels sorry for Blevins, and Blevins accompanies John Grady and Rawlins into Mexico. After landing in jail, he is tortured and shot.
Alejandra The beautiful, dark-haired, 17-year-old daughter of the hacienda owner in Mexico. She rides a stylish black Arab horse English-style and speaks schoolbook English. She splits her time between Mexico City, where her mother lives, and La Purisima, her father's ranch. Alejandra seduces John Grady, who can refuse her nothing. Her great aunt arranges for the release of John Grady and Rawlins from prison and makes Alejandra promise never to see John Grady again. Alejandra does see John Grady in Zacatecas but refuses to run away and marry him. She is more bound by convention than her rebellious ways would indicate.
Senor Rocha, also called Don Hector The 40-year-old owner of La Purisima hacienda. His family has owned the property for many years and he still lives on it, unlike many other rich landowners. He has an airplane, which he uses to fly to Mexico City where his wife resides. He loves horses and is fond of John Grady, recognizing John Grady's great skills.
Duena Alfonsa The great aunt to Alejandra who lives at La Purisima and who loved Gustave Madero, one of the martyrs of the Mexican Revolution. She was the victim of a shooting accident when she was young and is missing two fingers on one hand. She plays chess with John Grady and is informative about the Revolution and other ideas. But she is very unbending and will not help John Grady win the right to be a part of Alejandra's life. She has decided what will be best and she, apparently, wields the power in the family. She does save John Grady's life, in exchange for the promise from Alejandra that she, Alejandra, will never see him again. She is an intelligent woman, with no sympathy.
Grandfather Grady Never alive in the novel, he died too soon to pass the ranch on to his grandson. It is his funeral scene that begins the novel. A kind man who never let anyone speak ill of his daughter (John Grady's mother) and who refused to have a funeral until dog tags at least came home. "He never gave up," John Grady recounts to Cole.
Cole The father of John Grady, a World War II veteran who was a prisoner of war. His marriage to John Grady's mother has failed. He has made money in the oil fields and at gambling, but he makes no attempt to buy the ranch or resist his wife's divorce papers. He takes long horse rides with John Grady and tries to give him advice.
Mother Never given a name, the mother of John Grady left him in the care of the Mexican women at the ranch and went to Los Angeles when he was a baby. She is now pursuing an acting career in San Antonio, has a young lover, and refuses to even lease the ranch to John Grady. She wants to sell it and take the money.
Redbo and Junior The horses of John Grady and Rawlins, respectively; the two boys' best friends. After surviving the Mexican adventure, Junior ends up at home with Rawlins and Redbo with John Grady and the big bay heading west.
Mary Catherine John Grady's girlfriend in San Angelo, Texas, who, at the start of the novel, has left him for another man.
Franklin The lawyer John Grady consults in San Angelo about his parents' divorce and the ownership of the family ranch.
Luisa and Arturo Along with Abuela, the old mother of Luisa, they have run the Grady ranch for years and lived there all their lives.
Armando, Antonio, and Maria The servants who run the La Purisima hacienda. Antonio, who speaks no English, takes a truck all the way to Kentucky to bring back the chestnut stallion.
Captain The man who comes to arrest John Grady and Rawlins and keeps them in a small jail cell. He is the one who cruelly shoots Blevins and whom John Grady later takes as a hostage in order to retrieve the American horses.
Perez The man, who may or may not be a prisoner, but who has a small dwelling in the yard of the Saltillo prison and seems to run the workings inside the prison. He has power over the life and death of the prisoners.
The Judge (or Charles, as his wife Dixie calls him) In Texas he restores the bay to John Grady's care after con artists try to claim it is theirs. He listens to John Grady's story, is kind, and gives good advice.
Reverend Jimmy Blevins The radio preacher from Del Rio, Texas, who says he has never heard of the kid who has taken his name or of the big bay he is riding. He and his wife feed John Grady a wonderful meal and tell him about their life.