Reasons for performing study: Airway matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) increase following inhalation of organic dust. The relative contribution of dust components to this elevation is unknown. Objective: To identify components of organic dust responsible for elevated MMP levels in equine airways. Methods: Bronchoalveolar lavage (BALF) from 7 heaves-susceptible horses, collected 6 h following inhalation challenges with saline, 2 different hay dust suspensions (HDS-1 and -2) and soluble and particulate fractions of HDS-1, were analysed for MMP-2 and -9 using SDS-page gelatin zymography. Results: HDS-1 challenge increased BALF proMMP-9 and total MMP-9. HDS-1 fractions, or the particulate fraction with added lipopolysaccharide, increased BALF proMMP-9 and total MMP-9 in combination, but not when inhaled separately. HDS-2 inhalation elevated BALF complex forms, proMMP-9, active MMP-9, total MMP-9 and total MMP-2. Conclusions: The results suggest synergistic action of soluble and particulate organic dust components. The fact that HDS-1 and HDS-2 had different glucan concentrations supports a role for moulds in the activation of MMP-9. Potential relevance: Activation and release of MMPs in response to inhaled moulds are involved in the aetiopathogenesis of heaves. Endotoxin contributes to the synergistic action of the dust components, but the overall MMP response to organic dust inhalation in heaves-susceptible horses largely reflects the mould content of the dust. In the future, inhibition of MMP production and release may offer therapeutic means for treatment and prevention of heaves and recommendations for acceptable dust levels can be given.