Philip Alexander is a small women-led company driven by a love of horses and craftsmanship. John Barker, the head welder of the brand, has been a craftsman for over thirty years and makes some of the world’s finest bits. Ana Martinez is the co-founder and creative director, who played a few chukkas in her younger years and grew up loving horses. Her love for equestrian, paired with John’s craftsmanship, allowed the company to form and bring something a “bit” more unique to the market.
John grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. As a child, he wasn’t much for academia and instead preferred to focus on more creative projects. “Even before I started kindergarten, the other kids in my neighborhood and I had started building wood forts for us to play in,” he says. After graduating high school, John knew the traditional route of college wasn’t for him, so he went to trade school to learn the art of welding.
He worked small jobs on commission until the mid-80s when he discovered he lived down the street from one of the world’s most famous horse bit makers, Ray Maheu. At this point in John’s life, he had never made a single horse bit. “He [Ray] was the type of guy who would show you how to do something once, and that was it,” John explains. “But that’s all I needed. I liked to work that way.”
He became a natural almost overnight and worked under Ray for fifteen years before deciding to venture off and create his own business. Since then, John has provided horse bits to some of the country’s top polo players and jockeys, including some Olympic teams. John emphasizes the importance of a proper, well-made custom horse bit when riding at a professional level.
“The bit helps guide the horse into knowing what you need it to do,” he shares. “Unless you are an absolutely perfect rider, you need the proper bit to guide the horse correctly. In theory, you could throw any bit in their mouth. But if the rider isn’t experienced enough, the horse reacts to that and freezes because it doesn’t understand what it needs to do.”
“It needs to be comfortable too,” John further adds. “I see a lot of bit makers creating bits that are uncomfortable for the horse, which ultimately ends in them freezing up or resisting the guidance of the rider.”
This attention to comfort and detail has led him to create horse bits for champion riders across the country. “When I watch the races on TV, I can immediately tell which bits are mine. They stand out in a good way. I love seeing them win and knowing I contributed to that,” he muses. John has been running his own horse bit company for over fifteen years now. It remained a relatively small, low-key operation, selling only to people who happened to know how good he was.
That’s where Ana came in. She always makes sure that meaningful connections back her business ventures, so when she met John, she felt compelled to partner with him and get his trade where it deserved to be.
Their partnership grew from the pandemic when Ana is looking for the next step after her skincare line startup got affected by the current situation. When she met John, she was not in an emotional or financial place to make any commitment. But her love for horses and equestrian lifestyle drew her in.
Describing John’s bits as a work of art, she says, is an understatement. She felt alive and motivated to share John’s talent. Custom horse bits are becoming less common and harder to find as people reach for the manufactured bits found on almost any shelf. Not only are these bits uncomfortable and confusing for the horse, but they’re also completely devoid of the craftsmanship that is meant to go into them.
Craftsmanship is one of the fundamental reasons Ana invested so much in John’s talent. As things become more rapidly-produced, craftsmen like him are left behind with no one to appreciate their talent and dedication. The art of customized, hand-made horse bits deserves to be kept alive and appreciated.