We report the effects of mouldy hay/straw exposure, inhaled hay dust suspension (HDS) and inhaled lipopolysaccharide (LPS) on bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) gelatinolytic matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) levels and degree of activation in healthy (n = 6) and heaves- (previously termed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) affected (n = 6 or 7) horses. Gelatinolytic MMPs in BALF were quantified by zymography, and gelatinases were shown by Western immunoblotting to be MMP-2 and MMP-9. Hay/straw and HDS challenges increased BALF total gelatinolytic activity only in heaves horses, with the majority of gelatinolytic activity comprising pro- and active MMP-9. The 5 h duration hay/straw challenge increased BALF gelatinolytic MMP activity in heaves horses at 5 and 24 h after the start of this challenge, with activity returning to baseline by Day 4. In contrast to hay/straw and HDS challenges, LPS inhalation increased BALF gelatinolytic MMP activity in both groups. For all challenges, absolute BALF neutrophil counts were highly significantly correlated (P<0.0001) with levels of proMMP-9 and active MMP-9, but not with levels of MMP-2 (P>0.05). As gelatinolytic MMPs are pro-inflammatory agents, they may contribute to lung dysfunction and tissue destruction in heaves horses exposed to airborne organic stable dusts.