Programmed ribosomal frameshifting (PRF) in HIV-1 is thought to be stimulated by a hairpin in the mRNA, although a pseudoknot-like triplex has also been proposed. Because the conformational dynamics of the stimulatory structure under tension applied by the ribosomal helicase during translation may play an important role in PRF, we used optical tweezers to apply tension to the HIV stimulatory structure and monitor its unfolding and refolding dynamics. The folding and unfolding kinetics and energy landscape of the hairpin were measured by ramping the force on the hairpin up and down, providing a detailed biophysical characterization. Unexpectedly, whereas unfolding reflected the simple two-state behavior typical of many hairpins, refolding was more complex, displaying significant heterogeneity. Evidence was found for multiple refolding pathways as well as previously unsuspected, partially folded intermediates. Measuring a variant mRNA containing only the sequence required to form the proposed triplex, it behaved largely in the same way. Nonetheless, very rarely, high-force unfolding events characteristic of pseudoknot-like structures were observed. The rare occurrence of the triplex suggests that the hairpin is the functional stimulatory structure. The unusual heterogeneity of the hairpin dynamics under tension suggests a possible functional role in PRF similar to the dynamics of other stimulatory structures.