A method for culturing explants of lamellar hoof was developed to investigate the process of lamellar separation that occurs in laminitis. Explants, consisting of hoof wall, dermal and epidermal lamellae and the adjacent sub-lamellar connective tissue remained intact when cultured in tissue culture medium for 2 days. However, when cultured in the presence of the matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) activator aminophenylmercuric acetate (APMA), the lamellae separated when tension was applied by pulling the hoof wall in an opposite direction to the connective tissue. The separation occurred between the epidermal basal cells and the basement membrane therefore mimicking the lesion of laminitis. Electrophoresis of culture medium from control hoof explants into gradient polyacrylamide gels co-polymerised with gelatin revealed that the explants had produced 2 gelatinases of molecular weight 92 and 72 kDa corresponding to EqMMP-9 and EqMMP-2 respectively. Minor bands of lower molecular weight were the active forms of these enzymes. The zymograms of culture medium from APMA treated explants revealed an increase in the amount of active MMPs. Equine polymorphs cultured for 2 days produced only EqMMP-9. Lamellar explant medium from horses with acute laminitis contained increased amounts of zymogen and active EqMMP-2 and EqMMP-9 particularly in explants from the fore hooves. Zymography of homogenates of normal lamellar hoof tissue revealed only EqMMP-2 and a minor active band. However, homogenates of lamellar tissue from horses with laminitis showed that EqMMP-9 was present as well as increased EqMMP-2 in both zymogen and active forms. Addition of the MMP inhibitor batimastat (BB-94) to the culture medium of APMA treated explants prevented lamellar separation. BB-94 incubated with polyacrylamide strips containing the MMPs from laminitis affected lamellar explants inhibited enzymatic activity at a concentration of 1 mmol/l. It is concluded that activation of MMPs may be responsible for the lamellar separation seen in laminitis and that MMP inhibitors may be useful clinically for preventing this process.