Based on its efficacy for the treatment of human asthma, the corticosteroid prednisone is commonly used in horses for treatment of recurrent airway obstruction. However, recent studies have failed to show any benefit of prednisone tablets for the treatment of this condition. The purpose of this study was to determine why oral prednisone has poor efficacy for the treatment of heaves in horses. In a crossover study, 5 horses were given the following treatments: prednisone tablets, prednisone liquid, prednisolone tablets, prednisolone liquid and i.v. prednisolone sodium succinate (positive control). Blood samples were taken before drug administration and at selected time points during a 24 h period. Serum concentrations of prednisone and prednisolone were determined in order to evaluate gastrointestinal absorption and hepatic metabolism. Serum concentrations of the endogenous glucocorticoid hydrocortisone were also determined as an indicator of the biological activity of the drugs. Both prednisolone tablets and liquid were absorbed rapidly, with prednisolone detectable in serum within 15 min of administration and with peak concentrations occurring within 45 min. Small amounts of prednisone were detected in the serum samples after administration of both prednisone tablets and liquid. Prednisolone was not detected in serum samples after administration of prednisone liquid and was detected in serum samples from only one horse after administration of prednisone tablets. Endogenous hydrocortisone production was suppressed when horses received prednisolone. The results of these studies indicate that prednisone has poor efficacy for the treatment of heaves because it is poorly absorbed and the active metabolite prednisolone is rarely produced. In contrast, prednisolone tablets have excellent bioavailability and should be useful as a therapeutic agent in horses.