The skeletal muscle relaxant dantrolene inhibits the release of Ca2+ from the sarcoplasmic reticulum during excitation-contraction coupling and suppresses the uncontrolled Ca2+ release that underlies the skeletal muscle pharmacogenetic disorder malignant hyperthermia; however the molecular mechanism by which dantrolene selectively affects skeletal muscle Ca2+ regulation remains to be defined. Here we provide evidence of a high- affinity, monophasic inhibition by dantrolene of ryanodine receptor Ca2+ channel function in isolated sarcoplasmic reticulum vesicles prepared from malignant hyperthermia-susceptible and normal pig skeletal muscle. In media simulating resting myoplasm, dantrolene increased the half-time for 45Ca2+ release from both malignant hyperthermia and normal vesicles approximately 3.5-fold and inhibited sarcoplasmic reticulum vesicle [3H]ryanodine binding (K(i) ~150 nM for both malignant hyperthermia and normal). Inhibition of vesicle [3H]ryanodine binding by dantrolene was associated with a decrease in the extent of activation by both calmodulin and Ca2+. Dantrolene also inhibited [3H]ryanodine binding to purified skeletal muscle ryanodine receptor protein reconstituted into liposomes. In contrast, cardiac sarcoplasmic reticulum vesicle 45Ca2+ release and [3H]ryanodine binding were unaffected by dantrolene. Together, these results demonstrate selective effects of dantrolene on skeletal muscle ryanodine receptors that are consistent with the actions of dantrolene in vivo and suggest a mechanism of action in which dantrolene may act directly at the skeletal muscle ryanodine receptor complex to limit its activation by calmodulin and Ca2+. The potential implications of these results for understanding how dantrolene and malignant hyperthermia mutations may affect the voltage-dependent activation of Ca2+ release in intact skeletal muscle are discussed.