RNAs adopt defined structures to perform biological activities, and conformational transitions among alternative structures are critical to virtually all RNA-mediated processes ranging from metabolite-activation of bacterial riboswitches to pre-mRNA splicing and viral replication in eukaryotes. Mechanistic analysis of an RNA folding reaction in a biological context is challenging because many steps usually intervene between assembly of a functional RNA structure and execution of a biological function. We developed a system to probe mechanisms of secondary structure folding and exchange directly in vivo using self-cleavage to monitor competition between mutually exclusive structures that promote or inhibit ribozyme assembly. In previous work, upstream structures were more effective than downstream structures in blocking ribozyme assembly during transcription in vitro, consistent with a sequential folding mechanism. However, upstream and downstream structures blocked ribozyme assembly equally well in vivo, suggesting that intracellular folding outcomes reflect thermodynamic equilibration or that annealing of contiguous sequences is favored kinetically. We have extended these studies to learn when, if ever, thermodynamic stability becomes an impediment to rapid equilibration among alternative RNA structures in vivo. We find that a narrow thermodynamic threshold determines whether kinetics or thermodynamics govern RNA folding outcomes in vivo. mRNA secondary structures fold sequentially in vivo, but exchange between adjacent secondary structures is much faster in vivo than it is in vitro. Previous work showed that simple base-paired RNA helices dissociate at similar rates in vivo and in vitro so exchange between adjacent structures must occur through a different mechanism, one that likely involves facilitation of branch migration by proteins associated with nascent transcripts.