Ulcerative keratitis is a common and potentially blinding ocular disease of horses, capable of progressing to corneal perforation in as little as 24 h. This rapid stromal degeneration is mediated in part by exogenous and endogenous proteinases. We measured and compared the concentrations of two matrix metalloproteinases (MMP-2 and MMP-9) and a serine proteinase (neutrophil elastase) present in the precorneal tear film of normal horses and horses with rapidly progressing ulcerative keratitis. Precorneal tear film samples were collected from 23 ulcerated and 21 unaffected eyes of 23 horses with unilateral ulcerative keratitis, and from 33 normal eyes of 17 control horses. MMP-2, MMP-9, and neutrophil elastase were identified by casein and gelatin zymography and quantified by computerized image analysis. Median MMP-9 levels were significantly higher in the precorneal tear film of young control horses vs. older control horses (P = 0.005). Median MMP-2, MMP-9, and neutrophil elastase levels were significantly higher in the precorneal tear film of ulcerated eyes when compared to age-matched normal controls (P = 0.004, P = 0.001, and P = 0.012, respectively). Median MMP-2 levels were also significantly higher in the precorneal tear film of contralateral eyes of affected horses when compared to age-matched normal controls (P = 0.004). No significant differences in median proteinase levels were detected between ‘sterile’ ulcers and those from which bacteria or mixed infections (bacteria and fungi) were isolated. However, median MMP-2 and neutrophil elastase levels were significantly higher in the precorneal tear film of eyes with ‘sterile’ ulcers when compared with ulcerated eyes from which fungi were isolated (P < 0.05). The results of this study support the use of topical antiproteinase therapy which targets both MMPs and serine proteinases in progressive equine ulcerative keratitis.