Benzodiazepines (BDZ) are among the most frequently used class of psychotropic drugs employed in veterinary medicine in Brazil and worldwide due to their anxiolytic, muscle relaxant and anticonvulsant effects [J. Clin. Pharmacol. 33 (1993) 124]. Peripheral benzodiazepine receptor (PBR) sites were described in peripheral organs, endocrine steroidogenic tissues and immune organs and cells. Midazolam is a mixed-type agonist of PBRs. The present study is focused on the effects of midazolam on equine peripheral blood neutrophils, peritoneal macrophages and cortisol levels in plasma. Adult horses were treated with a single dose of midazolam (0.06 or 0.1 mg/kg) or with 0.9% NaCl. Immune cells were collected 24 h after treatment for flow cytometry analysis of Staphylococcus aureus-induced phagocytosis and oxidative burst. Plasma cortisol concentration was measured 30, 90, 180 and 360 min after midazolam treatment. Midazolam induced a dose-dependent reduction on: (1) peripheral blood neutrophil and peritoneal macrophage oxidative burst; (2) the capacity of both peripheral blood neutrophils and peritoneal macrophages to phagocyte S. aureus. Increments on plasma cortisol concentration were not found after 0.06 and 0.1 mg/kg of midazolam. The effects on oxidative burst of neutrophils and macrophages from horses treated with midazolam were interpreted as a consequence of an impairment of S. aureus-induced phagocytosis. The present data suggest that midazolam, most probably acting on PBRs present on equine macrophage and neutrophil membranes, might have changed some mechanisms related to both phagocytosis and oxidative burst. These results support the use of flow cytometry to identify functional properties and dysfunction of equine immune cells. They also confirm the notion that changes in the functional capacity of the immune system may represent an important hazard of exposure to drugs or chemicals.