Cryptosporidium and Giardia are two of the most common enteric pathogens of domestic and wild animals and humans. However, little is known on the prevalence, clinical manifestations and economic and zoonotic significance of these infections in horses. This study was undertaken to investigate the prevalence, excretion patterns and risk factors related to the faecal shedding of Cryptosporidium oocysts and Giardia cysts in horses and the zoonotic potential of species/genotypes isolated. The survey was performed on 120 foals and 30 broodmares reared in five Italian farms. Foals were divided in four homogeneous groups of 30 animals each (age classes: 0–2, 2–4, 4–8, >8 weeks). Three sequential faecal samples were collected from each animal and analysed by three techniques: direct fluorescent antibody test (DFA), faecal flotation (FF) and stained faecal smears (SFS). The DFA results showed a prevalence of 8% for Cryptosporidium and of 13.33% for Giardia; the prevalence values obtained by FF and SFS were lower and in poor agreement with DFA results. Giardia and Cryptosporidium infections were more common in foals (23.33% and 26.66% respectively) and higher excretions were observed in the youngest foals. Distribution of Cryptosporidium prevalence was statistically related to farms (P < 0.01), age of animals (P < 0.01), but was unrelated to the presence of diarrhoea. In the case of Giardia, the prevalence was only related to age (P < 0.01). Pattern sheddings were related to intestinal diseases and horse age (P < 0.01). Risk factors for shedding included residence farms and age older than 8 weeks for both parasites. All DFA-positive faecal samples were submitted to DNA extraction and PCR to determine Giardia and Cryptosporidium species/genotypes. Sequence analysis of the COWP gene of Cryptosporidium and of the SSU-rRNA gene of Giardia revealed that they were identical to each other and identified Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia duodenalis assemblage E. The potential role of infected horses in zoonotic transmission of Cryptosporidium was supported by the findings of this study.