This phrase is used to indicate that you are going to make the journey on foot. When I was a child, the shank of a lamb was a second-rate cut of meat, one for the poor or the last knockings from the carcass of a sheep. The wonders of modern gastronomic marketing have transformed it into a desirable and, needless to say, expensive treat.
Shank comes from the Old English word sceanca which referred to that part of the leg from the knee to the ankle. There was a verb shank or to shank it, which meant to go on foot, using your legs to get you to your destination, according to An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, compiled by John Jamieson in 1808. The first association with a horse in printed form appeared in Allan Ramsay’s The Tea-Table Miscellany of 1724 in which the song, Scornfu’ Nansy, contains the couplet, “and ay until the Day he died/ He rade on good shanks Nagy”. As Ramsay stated that he was quoting an old song, clearly it dates well before his compilation and probably confirms its Scottish origin.
The phrase’s association with Scotland is reinforced by its appearance in Robert Fergusson’s poem of 1774, The Election, “he took to shanks-naig, but fient may care”. Even then it was a bit of a joke – I would like to travel by horse but the only mode of transportation I’ve got is my two legs. Variants appeared in Scotland, replacing nag with Galloway, a small, strong breed of horse associated with the region of Galloway, and noddy, a light, two-wheeled buggy used in Scotland and Ireland in the 18th century.
Like many things, some good, some bad, the phrase migrated to England. In William Carr’s The Dialect of Craven, published in 1828, he defines shanks-galloway as “to go on foot, on the shanks, or ten taas”. Anne Elizabeth Baker’s Glossary of Northamptonshire of 1854 defines Shanks’ poney as “a low phrase, signifying travelling on foot, or, as it is sometimes said, on ten toes”. And the ever comprehensive Edward Peacock in his Glossary of words used in the wapenakes (an administrative division) of Manley and Cottingham , Lincolnshire of 1877 defines shanks-galloway, shanks-mare, shanks-pony and shanks-nag as, “a man is said to go on one of these animals who goes on foot”.
In America the variant most popularly in use there is Shanks’ mare and in France their equivalent phrase is aller sur la haquenee des cordeliers or, alternatively, sur la mule de cordeliers. The Cordeliers were Franciscan monks who were seen wandering around the countryside with their large walking sticks (la haquenee).
One potential explanation for the origin of our phrase can be easily put to rest. Shanks & Company, now part of Armitage Shanks, developed a horse-drawn lawn mower which had no seat and so the operative had to follow behind. Unfortunately the machine was not developed until the mid 19th century and the phrase can be established as having currency at least a century or so earlier.
Not content with shanks’ pony there are other phrases which mean having to go by foot. In Northamptonshire at the turn of the last century a writer reported the phrase “go in a shoe-cart” and other variants include “to borrow Mr Foot’s horse”, “to go by Walker’s bus” and “to go on or ride Bayard of ten toes”. One interesting variant s “to travel by marrow-bone stage” which is probably a reference to the first omnibus which was run from Marylebone.