Students, Software Rescue Draft Horses From Slaughter

Engineers don’t normally find themselves being drooled on at work, but it comes with the territory when your “client” is a 1,900-pound draft horse with a sweet tooth. The horse, Fargo, thought Joseph Hirn, the software engineering student standing next to him, might have a peppermint in his hand; Fargo reached down to find out.

Students, Software Rescue Draft Horses From Slaughter

Software engineering senior Joseph Hirn worked on a program that will help Frog Pond Farm rescue draft horses, like Fargo, above, from slaughter.

Hirn got a handful of slobber and Fargo got a mild scolding from Lisa Gordon, owner of Frog Pond Farm, a draft horse rescue operation in Cambridge, Ohio.

How does a Penn State Behrend software engineering student end up being nibbled by a massive draft horse in a barn 230 miles from the college?

This story starts in 2002 at a livestock auction in Ohio, when Gordon rescued her first horse, a Belgian mare named Babe who was likely bound for slaughter, as are most horses sold at auction.

“I did some riding with Babe and, during that time, I happened to learn more about horse slaughter,” Gordon said. “One day I thought maybe I ought to sell Babe and use the money to save two more horses from auction.”

Soon two horses rescued became four, then six. A few months later, Gordon formed Frog Pond Farm, a non-profit organization on a mission to rescue, rehabilitate, and rehome draft horses. Since then, Gordon, her family, and her loyal volunteers, or Ponders, have rescued an estimated 1,700 draft horses.

With anywhere from twenty to fifty horses at Frog Pond to care for, Gordon has struggled to coordinate rescue and adoption efforts through a cobbled system of e-mail, Facebook, and mountains of paperwork.

“I find myself spending a lot of time answering repetitive questions,” Gordon said. “I needed a better system, but I’m not a computer person.”

Hirn, however, is. He and fellow software engineering seniors Chris Greenawalt and Matt Smith developed a new software program for Frog Pond that will allow the rescue to better coordinate its logistical challenges. Creation of the software was the trio’s year-long capstone project, a prerequisite to graduation required of all Penn State Behrend engineering students. It also was part of IBM’s Software for a Cause program.

“The goal of Software for a Cause is to pair student programming teams with nonprofits that are in need of a software application to better serve their constituents,” said IBM representative Brian Schimpf. “This gives students ‘real world’ programming experience while creating something of true value for the non-profit.”

A field trip to Frog Pond Farm was a chance for Hirn to learn more about the organization his team is helping.

“People think software engineers sit in cubicles all day, writing code, but this is the other side of it,” said Melanie Ford, a lecturer in engineering and the team’s faculty adviser. “It’s nice for Joe to be able to see the farm and take what he’s learned back to the team.”

The Frog Pond software program has three main components: a profile of each horse; an online adoption application; and a rescue resource database with a searchable, sortable list of volunteers and their capabilities (such as medical or training skills) and resources (spare trailers, extra barn space). The project uses open-source code that eventually be adapted by and used for other animal rescue organizations.

For Gordon, the software program means less screen time and more barn time. “It will free me up so I can give a lot more attention to the horses,” she said as Fargo, as if on cue, nudges her hand, still searching for that peppermint candy.

Joseph Hirn, Chris Greenawalt and Matt Smith will present their engineering capstone project, “Web Application to Aid Animal Rescue,” at Penn State Behrend’s annual Richard J. Fasenmyer Engineering Design Conference. The conference takes place Saturday, April 28, in the college’s Jack Burke Research and Development Center; click here for additional information.