“Go by Shanks’ pony – Walk short distances and leave room for those who have longer journeys” – a Second World War poster by Lewitt-Him for the Ministry of War Transport – image: Imperial War Museums
The phrase Shanks’(s) pony, or mare, etc, means one’s own legs as a means of conveyance.
It is (probably with a pun on the surname Shanks) from shanks, meaning one’s legs.
This phrase seems to be of Scottish origin. It is first recorded in The Tea-Table Miscellany: Or, a Complete Collection of Scots Sangs, published in 1729 by the Scottish poet, playwright, editor and librarian Allan Ramsay (1686-1758). The song titled Scornfu’ Nansy has the following lines:
And ay until the Day he died,
He rade [= rode] on good shanks Nagy*.
(* a nag: a horse)
As this song also appeared in an anonymous book titled A Collection of Old Ballads, published in 1738, the phrase must have been in common usage long before that date.
That it was originally Scottish seems to be confirmed by the fact that it is then recorded in the form shanks-naig in The Election, a poem by the Scottish poet Robert Fergusson (1750-74). It also came to be used in Scotland with, instead of nag, the words:
– galloway, a small but strong breed of horses peculiar to Galloway, in the south-west of Scotland,
– noddy, an 18th-century light two-wheeled hackney-carriage that was used in Ireland and Scotland.
By the 19th century, the forms with nag and galloway, as well as those with mare and pon(e)y, were being used not only in Scotland but also in northern and southern England. A Glossary of words used in the wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire (1877), by Edward Peacock, contains:
Shanks-galloway, Shanks-mare, Shanks-pony, Shanks-nag: a man is said to go on one of these animals who goes on foot.
In The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (1828), William Carr wrote:
Shanks-galloway: to go on foot, on the shanks, or ten taas [= ten toes].
And Glossary of Northamptonshire words and phrases (1854), by Anne Elizabeth Baker, has:
Shanks’ poney. A low phrase, signifying travelling on foot, or, as it is sometimes said, on ten toes.
Other phrases were used to denote the action of walking as a means of conveyance. A contributor to Notes and Queries of 21st May 1904, John T. Page, wrote that he lived in Northamptonshire and that he was
talking to a labouring man the other day about some one being unable to afford the cost of a horse and trap to take him to a certain place. “He must do as I should,” said he, “go in a shoe-cart.”
Another contributor to this issue of Notes and Queries, J. Holden MacMichael, mentioned the phrases:
“to borrow Mr. Foot’s horse”; “to go by Walker’s bus”; “to travel by the marrow-bone stage”; “to go on, or ride Bayard of ten toes.” The “marrow-bone stage” is probably in allusion to the first omnibus run from the “Yorkshire Stingo” in Marylebone, which, as is well known, is pronounced “Marrybun.” There is also the slang phrase “to pad the hoof”; and “to take one’s foot in one’s hand” is to depart or make a journey.
The last phrase is similar to the French prendre ses jambes à son cou, literally to take one’s legs to one’s neck, meaning to flee.
The French equivalent of to ride on Shanks’s pony was aller sur la haquenée (or sur la mule) des cordeliers. It literally means to go on the Cordeliers’ hackney (or mule). The Cordeliers are Franciscan friars, and because they were always seen travelling on foot, their walking-stick came to be called la haquenée (or la mule) des cordeliers in French, and el caballo de San Francisco (Saint Francis’s horse) in Spanish.
The word shank was used as a verb meaning to travel on foot, according to An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) by John Jamieson. And in Scottish Dictionary and Supplement (1841), the same author wrote:
To shank aff:
– to set off smartly, to walk away with expedition
– to depart, by whatever means
To shank aff (someone): to send off (someone) without ceremony
To shank one’s self awa: to take one’s self off quickly.